Kay Powell was shopping at Kroger on Zebulon Road one day last week when she heard a familiar Christmas song playing in the background.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was drifting through the speakers, over the top of the bread aisle and across the produce department.
The voice was so familiar it was almost like family.
In fact, it was.
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The man singing in every shopper’s ear was her brother-in-law, country music singer Ronnie Milsap.
The classic holiday song was from his album, “Christmas With Ronnie Milsap,” which made its debut 28 years ago.
Kay and her family always have it on their December playlist. They decorate their tree to its tunes. It is on the soundtrack for every Powell Christmas Eve.
Milsap, the legendary blind country singer, is a six-time Grammy Award winner and has 40 No. 1 country hits, third all-time behind George Strait and Conway Twitty.
He is married to Kay’s older sister, Joyce. They will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. When Milsap was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October, the entire Powell family attended.
He recorded his only Christmas album in the summer of 1986. The concept for the cover had him springing from a jack-in-the-box, holding sheet music and surrounded by children.
One child was dressed as a toy soldier, one as a dancer and one as a jester.
When the graphic designer said he planned to bring three children from California to fill those roles, Joyce stepped in and persuaded him to change his mind.
Why import three kids from California?
She knew a trio in Macon who would be perfect. Of course, she was a little prejudiced, since they were her niece and two nephews.
Kay and her husband, Dr. Roy Powell, a local plastic surgeon, were the parents of three children: Josh, 7, Lindsay, 6, and Andrew, 4.
“We grew up listening to Uncle Ronnie’s music,” Andrew said. “We knew every word to every song.”
But appearing on the cover of his Christmas album, which had the potential to be seen and heard all over the planet, would almost guarantee status as the coolest kids at Springdale Elementary.
“The designer asked Joyce if they had ever done photo shoots,” Kay said. “It’s a long day, with a lot of makeup. She said they were well-mannered and would do whatever they were told.”
Josh is now 35 and an in-patient pharmacist at The Medical Center, Navicent Health, in Macon. Lindsay Attaway is 34 and an anesthesiologist in Columbus. Andrew is 32 and works for Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Statesboro.
Josh remembers being intrigued when the cover concept arrived in a manila envelope at their home on Craddock Way. There were four children in the original drawing. He doubted Milsap’s son, Todd, would be included.
“Todd is 10 years older than I am, so I knew there was no way he would do that,” Josh said.
The photo shoot was in Nashville and lasted two days. Although Milsap was photographed separately, he remained in the studio when the photographer turned his attention to the children. The Powells were the only three youngsters used on the cover.
“They moved us around,” Josh said. “The placements were not predetermined where we were going to be.”
At one point, Josh was at the wheel of the jack-in-the-box. (Andrew ended up there in the final photograph.) The toy soldier had to salute so many times his arm grew weary. He remembers getting hot, tired and a little frustrated. But everybody hung in there.
“They had some cool toy soldier boots picked out for me, but they didn’t fit. We went to Kmart and bought some rain boots,” Josh said.
Andrew’s recollection of the day is somewhat limited, since he was only 4 years old. But he does remember the offer of being paid $200 for his work or keeping the costume he was wearing.
“None of them were old enough to understand the value of money,” Roy said. “So they all kept the outfits.”
RCA Records later shipped the costumes to the Powells and included a $100 check for each child. They started saving accounts.
The Powells still display the album cover every Christmas, along with the other decorations. They received a thrill when Milsap wrote about the experience on page 215 of his 1990 autobiography, “Almost Like a Song.”
“Having Josh, Lindsay and Andrew with me on the cover made the album feel ‘Christmassy’ to me,” Milsap wrote.
“I would give my teacher an autographed copy every Christmas until I was in the sixth grade,” Josh said. “I would always show everyone the cover and our names on the back.”
When he got older, he remembers going to Turtles Music Store on Forsyth Road and looking through the stacks of records and CDs for the personal Milsap holiday album.
“I was shy, so I probably didn’t show it to anybody,” he said. “Now, I can Google it, and it comes up.”
Andrew still catches himself searching for it.
“I have probably looked for it at every Wal-Mart I’ve ever visited,” he said, laughing.
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