"Most people want you to recut your hits, and we've always been resistant to that," says the smooth and much-awarded singer B.J. Thomas. "But the idea of recutting them unplugged [and] with some duets [included] seemed to make sense as a way to kind of get our foot back in."
Thomas is explaining the origins of his new album, The Living Room Sessions, in which he does indeed revisit a dozen of his best-known songs, eight of them with singing partners Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Keb' Mo' and Richard Marx, among others.
Something of a musical chameleon, Thomas began his career as a pop singer whose first hit was his 1966 cover of Hank Williams' country weeper, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." His recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid took him to the summit of the pop charts and won an Academy Award for best song.
In 1975, he scored his first No. 1 country triumph, "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song." Written by Larry Butler and Chips Moman, it also won a Grammy for best country song. Thomas copped another four Grammys between 1977 and 1981 for his gospel recordings. During the 1980s, he was a fixture on the country charts, topping them with "Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love" and "New Looks From an Old Lover."
His indifference to category comes naturally, he says.
"I think it's all about the fact that when we started our band [in Texas], we were all about 15 or 16 years old. We were right at the inception of Top 40 radio. We didn't have a lot of songs of our own. So we'd just take that Top 40 chart and learn as many of those songs as we could -- and that was our repertoire.
"I was always used to singing whatever I liked. I never did pay much attention to what genre it was. Of course, we had the great examples of Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. They easily went back and forth between pop, R&B and gospel. I still have that same feel about it."
The Living Room Sessions is free of gospel. But the album does offer a fair sampling of Thomas' pop and country mastery via hits he had between 1966 and 1983. He enlists Isaac Slade, of the rock band the Fray, to assist him on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Gill chimes in on "I Just Can't Help Believing." Keb' Mo' shares the mic on "Most of All."
Marx blends voices with Thomas on "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song." Jazz and pop singer Steve Tyrell joins in on "Rock and Roll Lullaby." Thomas tapped touring and studio singer Etta Britt for the sultry "New Looks From an Old Lover" and newcomer Sara Niemietz for "Hooked on a Feeling." Lovett is the vocally canny accomplice on "Raindrops."
Thomas solos on the remaining four songs: "Don't Worry Baby," "Eyes of a New York Woman," "Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love" and "Everybody's Out of Town."
The album is on the Nashville-based Wrinkled Records label, which was established by songwriter Sandy Knox and former MCA Records executive Katie Gillon.
Thomas says the label turned down his first record he submitted.
"I had been down in Muscle Shoals at least of couple of years ago," he explains, "and I cut a thing with Larry Butler about a year before he passed." Butler, who died last year, produced many of Kenny Rogers' biggest hits.
Thomas played the tracks he'd cut with Butler but says Knox and Gillon "didn't love" what they heard. So they settled on the duets theme.
To produce the new project, Knox and Gillon suggested Kyle Lehning, the studio wizard who helped vault Randy Travis and Dan Seals to country stardom.
"He did a great job," says Thomas. "He's got a unique way of producing and a great studio band. It just turned into a lot of fun."
Lehning, Knox and Gillon joined Thomas in selecting which artists to invite. Warhorses like Gill, Lovett, Marx and Keb' Mo' were obvious choices. So was Britt since she's a Wrinkled Records labelmate. Knox suggested Slade after having seen him perform in Nashville. Thomas opted for Tyrell and Niemietz.
"Steve and I grew up together in Houston," Thomas says. "We've been like brothers all our lives. ... He was instrumental in breaking Dionne Warwick's first record in Houston. So Scepter Records [Warwick's label at the time] flew him up to New York, and he got a job as promotion man with them.
"In the meantime, my record, 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,' became a No. 1 record in Houston. He was very instrumental in getting [Scepter] to lease that record." It became a Top 10 national hit. Tyrell also produced Thomas' "Rock and Roll Lullaby" in 1972.
"We thought it would be great if he came back in and sang it [for this album]," Thomas says. "It was kind of good to tie that back up."
Tyrell has developed a distinguished career as a singer and recording artist, as well.
Thomas first encountered Niemietz in 1997 when she was 4 years old. Seeing her singing along with him in the audience, he invited her to the stage, where she proceeded to belt out a few lines from "Hooked on a Feeling" with the aplomb of a professional. (The video of that event can still be seen on the Internet.)
"Her family tells me that since those few lines she sang with me, she's had a burning desire to be a singer," Thomas says. "So it was just kind of a no-brainer to invite her to come in and sing 'Hooked on a Feeling.' She's got a really wonderful voice. I think if people check her out, they'll be really impressed."
The Living Room Sessions is Thomas' first studio album since he released the Brazilian-flavored Once I Loved in 2009.
"I go down to Brazil every four or five years," he notes. "I've probably had more hits in South America than I've had in North America. Brazilian music is some of the most beautiful music on the planet. We were thinking of an excuse to go into the studio -- me and Allan Schwartzberg and Bob Mann, my two guys I've recorded with so much in New York City. We said, 'Man, let's make an album of Brazilian music just for ourselves, if nothing else. So we made it. We had so much fun doing it, and it turned out great. So we released it down in Brazil, and, of course, it's out here."
Thomas recently performed on the Grand Ole Opry with Richard Marx and expects to do around 60 dates this year in support of the new album.