WINCHESTER — COVID-19 nearly scuttled the 11th Patsy Cline Classic concert scheduled for Saturday night at Handley High School, but performer Ronnie Milsap wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Despite a year-and-a-half delay caused by the global pandemic, and despite the death of his wife just one month ago, the man who has scored 35 No. 1 hits on the Billboard music charts took to the stage of Handley High School's Patsy Cline Theatre.

"It's a real honor to be with you in Patsy Cline's hometown," Milsap, 78, told the near-capacity crowd before turning to his band and saying, "Let's play 'em something."

What followed was 90 minutes of some of the best-known songs in the history of country music: "Smoky Mountain Rain," "Stranger in My House," "(There's) No Getting Over Me," "Pure Love" "I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World" and more. Milsap, an accomplished pianist with a distinctive baritone singing voice, has so many hits he didn't have time to perform them all, despite the inclusion of two medleys that squeezed about a dozen of them into a pair of 5-minute tunes.

Milsap didn't forget he was playing in a theater named for Winchester native Patsy Cline, who became one of the most well-known country singers of all time before her death in 1963. He turned the mic over to guitarist and backup singer Rhonda Hampton, then played along on piano as Hampton sang the legendary Cline hit "Walkin' After Midnight."

"This song's for Ronnie because he loves Patsy Cline," Hampton told the crowd.

Milsap's upbeat personality shined throughout the show as he frequently joked with his six-piece band, honored the military veterans in the audience and praised the acoustics of the Patsy Cline Theatre.

He never gave indication that he was coping with profound grief after losing his wife of 55 years, Joyce Reeves Milsap, on Sept. 6. Audience members who were aware of his loss, though, found the lyrics to several of his songs especially profound. For example, when Ronnie Milsap performed his 1977 classic "It Was Almost Like a Song," many listeners were left with lumps in their throats.

"Now my broken heart cries for you each night," Milsap sang. "It was almost like a song but it's much too sad to write."

Despite the combined circumstances that could have easily caused Milsap to bow out of the 11th Patsy Cline Classic, the man who organized the concert, former state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. of Winchester, said he never doubted the show would go on.

"We just needed to be patient, and the Milsap team was really great to work with," Potts said on Saturday. "He has such a great track record of trying to do everything he can to satisfy his fan base, and he didn't want to disappoint these people here."

The Patsy Cline Classic, a fundraiser for the nonprofit Winchester Education Foundation, had been an annual event until COVID-19 forced Milsap's originally scheduled performance on April 17, 2020, to be postponed for more than a year due to health concerns. Since the coronavirus is still a threat, everyone who attended Saturday's rescheduled show had to wear a face mask throughout the performance and couldn't enter the auditorium without producing proof they had received a COVID-19 vaccination.

"I'm just glad most people have been understanding," Potts, executive director of the Winchester Education Foundation, said of the extra safety measures.

Milsap's performance on Saturday netted approximately $20,000 for the foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2000 to facilitate a public-private partnership between Winchester Public Schools, the Handley Board of Trustees and private citizens and businesses. In recent years, the foundation raised more than $4 million to help fund the conversion of the former John Kerr Elementary School on Jefferson Street into the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center, a vocational facility that opened in August to train city students in skilled professional fields including health care, construction and technology.

"One of these days, you're going to hear about somebody who graduated from Handley High School and went to the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center and now owns the largest plumbing and heating business in the Shenandoah Valley," Potts said. "That's exactly what's going to happen."

Milsap, a six-time Grammy award winner and 2014 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, is not the only high-caliber musician who has accepted Potts's invitation to perform at the Patsy Cline Classic. Previous headliners since the concerts began on Oct. 29, 2009, have included Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, Wynonna Judd, LeAnn Rimes, Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers, Vince Gill, Trace Adkins and Sara Evans.

When asked how he can get such top-tier talent to come to Winchester, Potts said it's just a matter of treating people with kindness.

"Be a good friend," he said. "Life is about relationships."

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

(1) comment

JuJu

Don't know that I would say it was a near capacity crowd...a lot of empty seats around me. Did the tickets not sell?? Was some turned away due to the covid protocol?? Or some didn't show cause they knew they wouldn't pass the covid protocol? But as always it was a great show.

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