Lionel Richie Returns to CMA Awards With New Versions of Old Hits

Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker, Little Big Town Will Join Him Onstage in Nashville

As the legendary Lionel Richie finishes work on his upcoming album, Tuskegee, a collection of his hits recorded as duets with country’s biggest stars, he’s also getting to perform a handful of those tunes on Wednesday’s (Nov. 9) CMA Awards show.

His performance will find him sharing the stage with Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and Little Big Town, who are featured on the album. Set for release in March, the album’s all-star cast also includes Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Jennifer Nettles, Kenny Rogers and Billy Currington.

This will be Richie’s first time on the CMA Awards stage in more than two decades. His last appearance on the show was in 1986 when he performed “Deep River Woman” with Alabama.

In a recent interview with CMT.com, he talked about the album and what to expect during the live broadcast.

What was it like to record your own hits with country’s major stars?

Well, the joke in the studio was that I’m walking in the door with my lyric sheet, right? And every artist fell out laughing and said, “What are you giving it to me for? I know it by heart.” Then I said to Darius, “Darius, what part are you gonna sing?” And he said, “Your part. I don’t know any other part. I’ve been singing this my whole life.” So it was a case of Lionel Richie is having a problem singing on his own damn record.

You’ll be singing three duets off the album on the awards show. How’s that going to work?

It was one of those situations where you’re trying to figure out how you put a medley together when what I really want is to sing the full version. But the good part about doing the CMA Awards is that we have such a cross-section of country on this record, so on Wednesday, you’ll hear Little Big Town and Darius Rucker and then Rascal Flatts. And when you get there, forget about it. It’s just going to make people anticipate the album so much and think, “Oh, my God. For God’s sake, let me hear it.”

What do you mean that you have a cross-section of country?

Well, Mr. Naïve here went in, and I just didn’t know. I didn’t realize that country was anything but straight ahead. I didn’t realize there were different genres of country. So, naturally, when I got involved in this thing, I’ve ended up assembling this cross-section of every piece of country there is. You got Willie on one hand and Jennifer Nettles on the other. And then Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton and Shania Twain and Kenny Rogers all in the middle. It took us nine months to realize what we had.

Was it hard to choose who’d sing which song with you?

No, because the album came about like this: Instead of me saying, “I want you to do this song,” I said, “What are your favorite songs.” And they all came with their favorites. I made it so that instead of it being a duets album like Sinatra, where you came in and whether you were Bono or Luther Vandross, you had to do the Sinatra arrangement. In this case, it’s just the opposite. I wanted to put a record together where, if Rascal Flatts did “Dancing on the Ceiling,” how would they do it? Or if Darius Rucker said, “I wanna do ‘Stuck on You,’” how would you do it? And let Jennifer Nettles sound just like Jennifer Nettles. My problem now is, I’ve gotta sing like them. Are you kidding me?

You have 13 different artists singing with you on the album’s 13 tracks. That had to take a while to schedule and record.

You think it’s gonna take 10 days. But nine months later, I’m totally exhausted, but we’re almost done. We recorded it in Nashville, and literally what made it so much fun was that I was the recipient of all these wonderful people doing these songs. But I was also the co-producer. It took about a half a day just to slap hands and hug and kiss, and then we got down to business. Everybody came to the table with their game face. I’ve know Willie forever. I’ve known Tim and Faith [Hill] forever. But I’d never leaned over and said, “Let’s do a song together.” Until now.

Why do you think your songs work so well as country songs?

When I started writing songs, I wanted to avoid the word “hip.” I would say to the Commodores, “I want to write for the folks between New York and L.A. That’s called America.” And so what happened here, this album is a testament to just that. These folks heard these songs growing up. Kenny Chesney said he was in high school and that I inspired him to be the songwriter that he is. You never realize what you’re setting off in motion — to turn around and come back and join you on the album later. All these singers told me, “My mama, my daddy, my cousin, my brother, my sister played it every day at the house. You were in the house. You were in the school.” Who knew?

Do you ever get back to your home in Tuskegee, Ala.?

I live in California, but I still have the house right there on the Tuskegee University campus. The one where the Commodores met in the basement and said, “We’re gonna be the black Beatles and take over the world.” That’s all still there. Only thing missing now is mom, dad and grandma. But I go back as much as I can.

Did that time in Alabama make you feel like you had the roots to do this country project?

Yes, but it’s ironic. So ironic. You leave Tuskegee, Ala., to see the big, big, big world, and you end up putting out an album called Tuskegee that came all the way back full circle. People say you can’t go home. But now I’m gonna say you can go home. I’m goin’ back to Tuskegee. This is about as real as it gets.

Why didn’t your 1977 Commodores hit, “Brick House,” make the cut on this album? That was kind of the funk version of Trace Adkins“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” with its lyrical reference — “36-24-36, what a winning hand” — to a well-built woman’s body.

It may still make it. What I’m trying to do in the studio now is make the album even more ridiculous than it is. I need that shitkicker, though, for that. That kick-the-door-down guy. I need somebody who’s gonna mess the whole room up. I just need somebody rude.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.