When Lionel Richie gathered his new friends in Nashville to record his new album, Tuskegee, he often started the conversation the same way.
“I asked the very simple question for male and female: ’What part are you going to sing?'” he told CMT Insider’s Allison DeMarcus. “And they all said, ’Your part, Lionel!’ which means now I’ve got to find a new part for me! Are you kidding me?!”
Nevertheless, the good-natured singer-songwriter says the recording process was “magical from then on.” And he certainly kept that magical feeling flowing for the TV special, ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends in Concert , airing Friday (April 13) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. Among those joining him on the show are Jason Aldean, The Band Perry, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, Rascal Flatts and Kenny Rogers.
In this interview, Richie talks about his early ideas for Tuskegee, connecting with today’s biggest country stars and his newfound desire to create his own music again.
DeMarcus: Lionel, let’s start from the beginning. What made you want to do this album?
Richie: If I had any idea that this album was going to take me on this adventure, I would’ve probably rethought it in a different manner. But thank God for stupidity because what started out to be “I’ll do a couple duets with some of my songs, and maybe we’ll kind of add some new stuff in there” went to “Well, Tim McGraw said he loved this song, Blake Shelton said he loves this song and Rascal Flatts said they love this song.”
How did they learn about these songs? I’m thinking, “Well, they don’t remember these songs.” They do! Not only do they remember them, but they know them by heart! So we were off to the races.
What I didn’t realize was that, normally, a country album takes about a month, maybe a month and a-half, maybe two months [to produce]. Nine months later … because I had to work around everyone’s schedule. (laughs) The beautiful part about my first lesson in country is they go on tour and stay on tour. And when they come home, they do another album, then they go on vacation and go back on the road again. So you have to catch them during that period of time when they’re free. When is that? (shakes his head) Never!
Did you always come to Nashville to record the album?
Nashville was the home base. In other words, I don’t want to take anybody out of their comfort zone. If you have a co-producer that you like, if you want your family in the room, however you normally record — whatever it is — bring it. I don’t want to take you out of your natural recording habitat. For me, it was the best time I’ve ever had in my life.
Why do you think these songs work so well in this genre?
I’m going to answer that only one way. They stuck so well because I wrote them in Tuskegee, Ala. When you wake up in the morning, there are only two real stations — country and R&B. And I found something amazing. There’s really no difference. … Put a steel guitar in either one of them, and you’ve got it down.
And I’m a storyteller, and I did not realize back then that country music is about a good story. It really is. It didn’t dawn on me until I was writing “Sail On.” … See, I didn’t know there was an R&B chart, a pop chart and a country chart. I just thought I was competing against the hit record on the radio. “Wichita Lineman” was on the radio. … Johnny Cash was on the radio, and he’s telling stories. Mac Davis and all these guys, they were on the radio telling stories. I thought I was just throwing my little country-ish story out there. “Easy” was the beginning of that. I didn’t realize that as time went on, it just translated simply to country. I found out later there were categories and charts. (laughs)
What made you name the album after your hometown? Was it because of your connection with country music there?
Yeah, I think that it’s important. It’s funny how they always say once you leave home you can never go back. Well, I rushed back home so fast because there’s no need in trying to pretend that Lionel Richie’s from Nashville. Even though my roots are here, I was born and raised in Tuskegee, Ala. You start thinking about, “Where did I get all of this from in the first place?” Those stories came from some place, and it was from Tuskegee. So why not honor the beginning? The place that I grew up. It works well when you establish to people [who listen to] the new country, “No, I wasn’t born in Beverly Hills. I wasn’t born in Hollywood, Calif.” I grew up right down there in red clay country, and it was really the best years of my life, truly. I think it contributed a great deal to the well of stories that I’ve been telling over these years. So it was just fitting to call it Tuskegee. Of course, the hometown loves it right about now.
Oh, I’m sure.
Oh, are you kidding me? Half the people are going to retire now! (laughs)
Do you now want to do some new material of your own?
Oh, my God, yes! It sparked me because I almost forgot the motto of the business — keep writing melodies. You almost forget, and you get gimmicky, you get tricky. … Great melodies live forever. I got into this country thing down here and realized, “Wait a minute. You all are singing melodies down here, and it’s not a gimmick.” It’s really a great thing.
Remember now, you all call it country. I call it pop music. It’s American pop music. That’s why when you go to the Grammys now, it’s not [only] the country category. Country artists are winning song of the year now, record of the year. … That never happened before, to the point now where it’s become dead center of what America’s about.
I’m a songwriter, and I think the best part about my life is that I’ve lived my entire life by lyrics. If you want to know what my book reads like, just put the songs on. I don’t have to write the book. The first song will tell you what I was thinking back when I was 19. The second song will tell you about when I was 24. I think my diary kind of reads for itself. And as long as I can be myself, naturally, that’s the best joy in the world.