The going meme is that, on his new album, Lionel Richie "goes country." But that's a little bit misleading. It's really more a case of 13 top country stars "going Lionel Richie."
Tuskegee, as anyone who reads any news outlet or watches any TV surely knows by now, is Richie's duets project as well as his Nashville entrée. And while there are some nods to Music Row accoutrements like steel guitar and fiddle, just as often it's a case of superstars like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Blake Shelton, and Willie Nelson settling effortlessly into the original style and pace of Richie's songs and having them still turn out like—surprise!—contemporary country.
In this Yahoo! Music video interview, Richie talks about the surprising and instantaneous acceptance he felt when he got to Music City USA to start work on Tuskegee.
"What I love most about Nashville is they come from songwriters first," Richie says. "Nashville kind of had its arms open for me before I even knew that I was totally welcome. I didn't know that I was a member of the community. But it's kind of wonderful when you walk in and everybody starts smiling — and then they start humming. They were already kind of attached to me because of the songs."
But there were some adjustments to be made. "I like to record at 5, 6, or 7 in the evening, [and] we go to 1 or 2 in the morning. No." In Nashville, "they're finished by 1 or 2 in the afternoon, because they have to go fishing, and they have to be home for dinner! They love family, and so there's no such thing as after 6:00 at night. 7:00—maybe. 8:00, 'I've gotta go home to dinner, I've gotta go home to see the family.' And you maintain this balance that's so perfect that, if we could get that in California, we'd have the divorce rate down by half at least."
He had some other lessons to learn about the different way of doing things on the Cumberland Coast. And the execs at his label had some things to adjust to, too, when he informed them that he didn't want to do a solo country crossover album but bring in a host of guest stars to re-do his clasics.
"They told me, 'We'll do a country album in three and a half weeks, like we do all country albums'," he recalls. "I said 'all country albums but duets.' In duets I have to wait for artists to be available—when they come back off the road, when they come back from vacation, when they come back from hunting and fishing… So, nine and a half months later, I have an album.
"They said 'Lionel, we do things differently in Nashville. We cut things on the floor.'" None of that L.A. stuff where the band might never even meet the guest singers, in other words. So Richie steeled himself to make a whole lot of new acquaintances. "I walked into the room thinking I was going to meet the new studio musicians. And the musicians are the same guys who played on 'All Night Long'! Craziest thing in the world. I'm saying 'Wait a minute, I thought you all retired from the business!' They said, 'No, we all moved to Nashville. The business is in Nashville.'"
Certainly the most consistently reliable part of the music business comes out of Music City nowadays, and Richie wasn't taking too much of a gamble when he relied on such a proven guest list. Most of them, of course, aside from Willie and Kenny Rogers, are just a little younger than he is.
"Kenny (Chesney) kept saying 'When I was 9 years old, these guys played 'My Love,' and…' I said, 'Shut up!' Then Tim (McGraw) came through the door and I said, 'Don't you say [you were] 12.' But each one of these fabulous artists had a story about what they were doing when these songs came out and who they were doing it with. The whole essence of the reasons these songs stuck around is that they stuck into somebody's lifetstyle. These songs are personal to them. It's not that they just wanted to help out Lionel Richie. It meant something to them, at the time."
He thought he knew which artists would favor which songs. He was often wrong. (Sadly, no one went for "Brick House.")
"I thought Kenny would do 'All Night Long.' It sounds like him! But he came in and said his favorite song is 'My Love'… I told Kenny, and in fact I told all of the artists, 'When you do this song, make sure it's a song that, after you leave here, you would put it in your show.' So [with that in mind], Kenny brought his whole band. That's Kenny's band playing on the track! On top of that, we had an extra added superstar in the room, because Kenny told me that his mother had never been to a recording session in the history of his playing. She showed up at my recording session. She wanted pictures with Lionel Richie!"
He pegged Rascal Flatts wrong, too. "By this time, I no longer suggested songs, because I'm wrong. I thought what would Rascal Flatts do? They came in with 'Dancing on the Ceiling.' I said, '" Dancing on the Ceiling" is about as country as the Mona Lisa. It just doesn't work.' They said, 'No, Lionel, the band's gonna play it.'" The song ends with a long instrumental jam, because "they just kept playing. I said, 'Guys, we're making a record!' But they're playing like it's a concert… I knew I was in trouble with Gary [LeVox]. I don't even have to tell you that it took half of my life away just putting me on that record with him. If he would just sing down here, but every time I tried to hit a note where I think I'm kicking ass, Gary goes up four octaves higher."
Lest anyone ever doubt Rascal Flatts' pure country credentials because of their pop leanings, Gary LeVox proved to Richie that you can't take a boy out of the country. "He said he went on vacation right after he cut this song. I said, 'What do you do on a vacation?' He said 'Oh, I killed a buck.' And he pulled out a picture, and I realized, I may not be that country. I'm getting close, but we ain't that country."
He also doesn't have the burly physique that seems to be de rigeur for male country stars these days. Richie does a hilarious impression of Jason Alden walking into the room, barrel chest first. "These guys must do thousands of pushups a day!"
The conviviality was such that Richie left a fair amount of studio chatter on the final recordings "I couldn't help it—I just left it in. You will hear us talking to each other in the middle of the song. Like, I said, 'Come on, Tim!' He and I just kept taunting each other through the whole thing. it was probably one of the funniest sessions we ever had."
Richie knew the guest artists were doing him a favor, but when it comes to international appeal, he eventually learned he might be doing them one in return, too.
"Somebody said, 'You are taking them around the world'," Richie says. That surprised him, but he enjoys thinking about spreading the country word in places where it's not so enormous. "I got one for you. Kenny Chesney in the middle east! What I'm saying to you is, I didn't realize. We're piggybacking this entire beautiful industry, where they [in other nations] get to hear real music and great songwriters. I can't wait for these wonderful artists to blow up over there, because they need that."