Lionel Richie proves that you can go home again with his new album, Tuskegee, a collection of 13 of his international hits performed as duets with today’s country music superstars, and it feels even better than he hoped. Tuskegee represents a full-circle moment for the international icon who has returned to his Southern roots to create an album that serves as a highlight of his unforgettable body of work that touches people of all backgrounds, faiths and ages around the world.
These innovative musical interpretations have given new meaning to these anthems of our day, whether it’s pairing with Tim McGraw on “Sail On,” joining Shania Twain on “Endless Love” or dueting with Kenny Chesney on the compelling “My Love.” Blake Shelton’s powerful voice brings a masculine Oklahoma sweetness to “You Are,” while Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles’ overwhelming passion is haunting on “Hello.” Jason Aldean brings a fresh country-rock edge to “Say You, Say Me,” and Darius Rucker’s soulfulness brings a rich texture to “Stuck On You,” creating harmonies that sound like the two have been singing together for years. Rascal Flatts combines a contagious enthusiasm and a jaw-dropping vocal range for a memorable duet of “Dancing On The Ceiling,” and Willie Nelson’s unique phrasings on “Easy” create the rhythm of a gently rocking boat.
Eager to explore new ground, Richie insisted that the other singers select the songs from his catalog to record, and he beseeched his partners to ignore his original versions and instead perform the songs as if they were their own. “The most important part of this album had to be that every artist had to leave the recording session and immediately want to put that song in their show,” he says. “I wanted it the way they would do it in their show, which means I captured their essence. You make the song a Willie Nelson song. You make the song a Rascal Flatts song.”
But to be sure, every note on Tuskegee represents Richie’s life, loves and family. “All the players that I thought had retired from the music business are now living in Nashville,” he says. “So when I walked into the studio to start this album, it came full circle. Doing this album was just a mere fact of coming back to the beginning, back to basics, back to home. The part of it I love the most is that the journey has been one of discovering myself.”
Lionel Brockman Richie Jr. was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he was exposed to country, gospel, R&B and classical music in equal parts, creating a musical foundation so strong that it has been able to withstand the industry’s boundaries and barriers throughout his storied career. Young Lionel was a wide-eyed dreamer with a big but vulnerable heart who strived to please his grandmother, a classical pianist whose nod of acceptance meant everything to him. Like many boys, he struggled at times to find his place in a world that could make him feel awkward and out of place.
“Did my grandmother have an influence on me? Absolutely. In fact, every time I play one of those chords, wrapped around a little country vocal, wrapped around a little R&B twinge, that’s the house,” he says. “That’s the lady who lives in that house. I can almost see her face every time I come up with something else new as a song. She’d always ask that question, ‘Now where did that come from?’ Or, ‘Who told you how to do that?’ It’s a part of that air in that house and around that town and in that community. It’s just a part of life.”
Despite the national civil rights battles, Richie felt safe in the nurturing cocoon of the family’s home located on the campus of Tuskegee University (a home he still owns today), where he was taught that anything was possible and failure wasn’t an option. His house served as ground zero for his friends, where food and fellowship were bountiful. “It was wonderful because success really was not due to money; it was due to the fact of warmth and security,” he says. “You knew you were loved not only by your mom and dad and your grandmother, but also the whole town. The whole town adopted you.
“It was a house of laughter and fun and craziness in the midst of some serious moments in history and life,” he says. “It’s just that the kids never knew it. They never taught us prejudice. Even to the day my dad died, I said, ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell me about some of that?’ He said, ‘Because I didn’t want to pass that onto you. Those are my memories. I wanted you to understand that you have no limitations. We had limitations, but you don’t.’ I use that as my mantra when I go forward now.”
Buoyed by this support, he dared to buck the academic traditions surrounding him as a college student to help form the Commodores, plotting and practicing with the group in his Tuskegee basement to become “the black Beatles.” They achieved the seemingly impossible when they landed a major label deal and garnered hits including “Sail On,” “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady” and “Still.”
He eventually left the Commodores and Alabama, embarking on a whirlwind solo career that earned sales of more than 100 million albums, 22 Top 10 hits, five Grammys, an Academy Award for Best Original Song, a Golden Globe and a host of other awards from virtually every other major entertainment organization. He has shaped popular culture as his music has served as the soundtrack of several generations around the world.
His music has remained at the forefront of his fans’ milestone moments – first kisses, first wedding dances, first break-ups and first children. It’s impossible to separate those memories and his music because they are inextricably intertwined. Quite simply, our lives wouldn’t have been the same without his music. “Every Lionel Richie song that I can think of I had a personal experience with – high school homecomings, proms, you name it,” says Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox. “Lionel was always playing in my house. His music always said what we felt and couldn’t express.”
Darius Rucker, who joins Richie on “Stuck On You,” says, “I wanted to work with Lionel because he’s one of my idols. Lionel’s more a part of my DNA than really an idol. I can’t even begin to say how important Lionel’s influence has been on me.”
Today, Richie’s flawless and seemingly effortless voice packs the emotional wallop of a visit by a beloved friend. Tuskegee is a long-overdue musical homecoming and a testament to his lasting legacy and timelessness of his songs.
Tuskegee is where he discovered that he was a songwriter, the place where he was inspired to write his first hits. “My stories are from my growing up,” he says. “My titles ‘Sail On’ and ‘Easy,’ they’re all from my growing up. Now of course, growing up in Tuskegee had a great deal to do with it because that’s simple life. It’s not a complicated life down there. You’re happy, you’re mad, you’re sad, you’re glad, you party.
“I’m going back to the beginning of where I wrote all of these songs in the first place,” he says. “It’s just fitting that this album would be called Tuskegee. What this album basically did for me was give me the opportunity to discover those characters that I thought I was going to forget – those childhood memories – but those are in those songs.”
From his song subjects to his song titles, Richie is known for the brilliance of simplicity. Since his days with the Commodores, he has vowed not to chase trends or try to be hip. Instead, he focused on writing music that appealed to those living between New York and Los Angeles. He is naturally drawn to the one subject that never goes out of style -- love. “’I love you, I want you, I need you forever.’ If I write that 97 different ways, they only want to hear, ‘I love you, I want you, I need you forever.’ Love is the one answer that everybody wants a piece of.”
His poetic simplicity in telling stories of universal truths is one of the reasons why so many country singers have been drawn to his songs for decades. “Lionel has the most amazing gift for taking conversation and making music out of it,” says Kenny Rogers, who joins Richie on “Lady.” “If you listen to any of his songs, it’s like you’re in the middle of a conversation. He does it so well.”
It’s not that Lionel Richie has gone country, but that country has gone his way throughout the years. Conway Twitty recorded “Three Times a Lady,” and Alabama recorded “Deep River Woman.” Kenny Rogers’ No. 1 version of “Lady” ranks No. 47 on Billboard’s All Time Top 100. (Richie also produced Rogers’ 1981 album, Share Your Love.) This generation’s country superstars like Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts perform his songs in their shows. He has performed on the Country Music Association Awards three times, and his 2011 performance, which received two standing ovations, was recognized as the evening’s most memorable moment.
He hopes Tuskegee will serve as a poignant gift to those who made him the man and musician that he is today. “Whenever you leave home, you always think, ‘One day, I’m going to make the town proud,’” he says. “Throughout my Oscars, throughout the Golden Globes, throughout the shows and awards, I had a town that watched me.
“Before the world knew about Lionel Richie and the Commodores, there was a town that knew about Lionel Richie and the Commodores, and they gave us all the encouragement in the world. ‘Lionel, you guys are great. Keep up the good work, Lionel. Keep up the good work, Commodores.’ Then the world caught on.
“I think the greatest tribute I can ever give as a thank-you for what the town has done for me is to name this album after that town because it had a lot to do with the songs that you hear and the upbringing of this guy called Lionel Richie.”