Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Ronnie Milsap, “Smoky Mountain Rain”

“Smoky Mountain Rain”

Ronnie Milsap

Written by Kyle Fleming and Dennis Morgan

Radio & Records

#1 (4 weeks)

November 21 – December 12, 1980


#1 (1 week)

December 6, 1980

Ronnie Milsap topped the Billboard chart so regularly in the eighties that it can be hard to discern which of his many number ones were the biggest hits.  As noted in the introduction to this feature, Billboard functioned in the eighties more like the Radio & Records list did in the nineties, and vice versa.  So if you need an indication at how massive “Smoky Mountain Rain” was, take a look at its four week stint at the top on the Radio & Records chart.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate that this is the third consecutive No. 1 single from a crossover artist that was used to promote a greatest hits package, and these singles helped power each artist’s collection to multi-platinum sales.  It’s already a challenge picking new material to go with a collection of hits.  Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, and Ronnie Milsap all managed to pick songs that became signature hits in their own right.

There’s something epic about “Smoky Mountain Rain,” with its dramatic strings, tightly written plotline, and the desperation in Milsap’s vocal.  I can forgive it being so clearly derivative of the Elvis Presley classic “Kentucky Rain” because the lyrics are so vivid that I was able to picture eastern Tennessee many years before I ever visited there.  The arrangement is so inspired, with new surprises at every turn, even upon repeated listens.

A lot of records from this era feel dated, many because they tried to do a production like this and they couldn’t pull it off.  It takes a strong vocalist to stand out among all of the theatrical elements here, and Milsap was one of the few in his day that could do it.   In this string of ten consecutive No. 1 hits, this might be my personal favorite.

“Smoky Mountain Rain” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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Next: Crystal Gayle, “If You Ever Change Your Mind”


  1. Ronnie really was (is?) a killer vocalist. I saw him open for George Strait in 2007, and he sounded just as good as he did back in his heyday.

  2. Wow… I never realized how many iconic hit singles were released in 1980 alone. We’ve already seen “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, “Drivin’ My Life Away”, “I Believe In You”, “On The Road Again”, and now “Smoky Mountain Rain”, just to name a few. This was a really strong year with a lot of songs well-worthy of “A” ratings.

  3. I remember struggling as to which Greatest Hits album to buy in December of 1980. Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, and Anne Murray all released one at about the same time. Not only were each of these hits albums full of major hit songs but they all had a brand new song that was fire. I think I bought Kenny’s and got the other two for Christmas.

    Smokey Mountain Rain was something different from Ronnie as he had recently been releasing one hit ballad after another. I love the piano arrangement and the story. Millsap couldn’t miss at this time and I would definitely include this song as one of his best songs of his career.

  4. This is “the” Ronnie Milsap song everyone knows and for good reason. I agree this song transports me to Tennessee and it’s like I see what he’s singing about and that’s the sign of a great song. Even though Ronnie was the genres biggest stars, I really feel like he was the most diverse vocalist in the genre. He could go from, hardcore Country, pop, soul, rock and gospel with complete ease and it never felt awkward.

  5. @ Steve. Me too! Like the late 90’s, I kinda dismissed the early 80’s as a boring time in country music but man this year has all time classics. Love this feature!

  6. The song drips with intensity, obsession, and drama. From the opening notes, the piano and guitar makes us feel the rain the narrator describes running down his face.

    In his autobiography, Milsap maintained he is a singer and not a vocal stylist. His technical skills as a singer afforded him the range and versatility for which he is most often celebrated.

    This song is in the ring with John Conlee’s “Friday Night Blues” for what the best of early eighties country production could do and sound like.

    “Smoky Mountain Rain” is outrageously compelling. Despite obviously knowing the song well, I still want to hear him describe climbing into the cab “all wet, cold, and lonely” and his wanting to find her “no matter what it takes.”

    I do worry, however, that he can, and likely will, go on hurting that way.

    Chalk up another 1980 classic!

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