Lionel Richie figured he’d include just a few duets on the album he was working on. Yet when he asked around, pretty much everybody in Nashville wanted in. The resulting project, Tuskegee, ended up being a full-fledged duets album with country’s current A-list, including Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton and Shania Twain. Yet he also sings with longtime favorites like Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers.
“I didn’t know there was new and old,” Richie said during a recent visit to CMT’s offices in Nashville. “All I knew was that these are country artists and everybody’s on board. And then I got into the album and realized, ‘Holy mackerel, we’ve got a melting pot here of something amazing.’”
Drawing on material from his solo career, as well as his catalog with the Commodores, Richie is expected to release Tuskegee in March. In the meantime, though, the personable pop star talks about finding his comfort zone in the studio, making new friends and giving credit to his hometown.
CMT: What do you remember about the first day in the studio when the project was underway?
Richie: I will tell you exactly: It was the most terrifying moment of my life! If I do a song myself, then I’m in the studio and I work it out with the band there. If I do a duet with someone, you make it very simple. Don’t bring the artist in until after you have the track together and don’t work out all the details in front of the artist because you don’t want them to see the imperfections until you get it right. In Nashville, they show up when I show up! They stood around like, “Lionel, I’m over here in the corner.” And the band’s playing, and I realized at that point, there’s a different kind of stuff down here.
But what I loved was, everybody’s involved. They’ve got patience. And then you realize, “Wait a minute. That’s how they record. OK.” It took three songs to get that itch away. It made me so nervous. I kept thinking, “Tim, are you all right? Is everything OK?” I kept asking over and over again, “Do you want to go out and come back,” and he’d say, “No, no, I’m fine.” … It took those three songs — Darius [on "Stuck on You"], Tim on “Sail On” and Blake with “You Are” to break the ice. After that, I was in a comfort zone.
I would imagine you were in a comfort zone pretty quickly with Blake.
Ah, I’m glad to hear you say that. I use this phrase very sparingly, but in this album’s case, everybody I walked in with became my brand-new old friend. Everybody was so personable. Instead of me trying to make them feel comfortable, they made me feel comfortable. Blake’s got that personality. Tim’s got that personality. And, of course, I’m sure Darius was in the Commodores. I just can’t find his picture.
Can you hear that comfort level on the record?
Oh, you can hear it right away. In other words, if you leave the session, you would want to sing the song in your show. Tim McGraw walked right out, and “Sail On” was in his show. Darius does “Stuck on You” in his show. Rascal Flatts does “Dancing on the Ceiling.” I achieved exactly what I wanted. Not just for them to be nice and courteous to me. No, I thought, “I want you to own this song.” What really worked for me was you could tell they liked singing it, but they liked singing it in the arrangement that we had because it was them. When we achieved that, then we really had magic.
You had success in the 1980s with an Alabama duet, “Deep River Woman,” and writing “Lady” for Kenny Rogers. What was your perception of Nashville and country music during that era?
It was an island unto itself. It wasn’t an island for long. And I should have known back then when Conway Twitty called me on the phone and said, “I’m doing ‘Three Times a Lady.’” … It should have told me right away, “Wait a minute.” The arm came out of the cloud and said, “We’d like to bring you in here and make you a part of this community.” …
What I didn’t realize back then was that I was writing as a storyteller. I hadn’t discovered my legs yet. I think it took Conway to give me that first introduction. … But I was in that world because I lived in Tuskegee, Ala. Once you hear it across the airwaves, you’re in it. It was only country and R&B on the radio. And on Sundays, you got gospel. That’s it.
When you lived in Tuskegee, what role did country music have in your day-to-day life?
First of all, everybody played guitar. Let’s just stop right there. The next thing is, even through the Civil Rights movement, you start thinking about people who were activists and they had guitars. And by the way, they were local players. That’s when I realized blues and country music are close together. … It’s in the fiber of what I’m doing. I just didn’t realize I was ever going to be part of it because I didn’t know I was going to be a songwriter back then. That’s what growing up in the South will give you — lots of great stories to talk about.
When you listen to Tuskegee, do you go back to that time in your life?
Absolutely. You work so hard to move away from your hometown, to be discovered and you think, “Maybe I’ll retire in France.” … And all of a sudden, you go back to cut an album in Nashville, Tenn., and you go out to breakfast and it’s grits and eggs, man. Grits and sausage and toast. And you go, “Hmmm, they don’t serve grits in the South of France.” I remember that — bacon, eggs — and you start getting into real life and realize the best years of your life are right down the road.
When they said, “What do you want to name the album?” I said, “I wrote these songs in Tuskegee, Ala. Why not give them the credit?” You know, my father always said there comes a time in life when you can’t go home. In my case, I can. I did. And it worked out great.