Universal Music Group Nashville
Lionel found out just how influential he is in Nashville's music scene by venturing there recently to fulfill a lifelong dream: making a country album. With help from an impressive list of some of the city's most lauded entertainers, the living legend turned 13 of his most beloved songs into duets that prove his music has always been, at least lyrically, a little bit country. The result is 'Tuskegee,' an upcoming collaborative CD named after the small Alabama town in which Lionel was born and raised.
The Boot talked to the four-time Grammy winner about the risks he took with 'Tuskegee' and its unique recording sessions, most of which tracked more laughter than music. (Just wait until you hear a joke Willie Nelson told!) We also chat about his CMA Awards performance, his iconic friendship with Kenny Rogers and the new friendships he's formed in Nashville.
What about this album made you want to name it after your hometown?
It just came as a no-brainer. When we were thinking about titles: 'Lionel Richie: the South,' 'Lionel Richie: Nashville,' 'Lionel Richie: Country' ... 'Lionel Richie: Tuskegee'! I want to let everybody know that I'm from there, and country is Tuskegee. Or should I say rather, my country is Tuskegee. I was born and raised there, it's not just someplace I passed through one day. It just seemed fitting -- a celebration of life.
What are your favorite memories of country music growing up in Alabama?
I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens ... not realizing it was influencing me as much as it was. By growing up in Alabama, I had a melting pot of the whole pie: R&B, gospel, country. And not just outside of town, but right through the airwaves of my city. So when I started writing, songs like 'Stuck on You' and 'Easy [Like Sunday Morning]' were actually country, but I didn't even realize that was my influence. Now, years later making this album, I didn't realize that so many of my country artist friends use those songs as the template for their lives. And when Conway Twitty graced me with the fact that he wanted to record 'Three Times a Lady,' that was it.
When you were coming up with the list of songs you wanted to re-cut as country duets, how did you decide who was going to sing what?
I didn't choose the songs for them; they chose for themselves. I said to Darius Rucker, "Would you like to do a Lionel Richie song?" and he just said, [mimics Darius singing], "Stuck on you!" The beautiful part about this album is I wanted [my duet partners] to own it; I wanted to make it a part of who they are. A lot of times when you do duet albums, they try to copy the artist they're paying tribute to. What I wanted to do was bring in everybody and their arrangement so that it would sound like something they would do on their own. So, we custom-made ['Deep River Woman'] to sound just like Little Big Town. It was just Little Big Town with Lionel Richie visiting ... Darius Rucker with Lionel Richie visiting ... With Rascal Flatts, they played the track. It wasn't like, "Come on in and we'll get some musicians to back you." No, they played the song.
One of the funniest parts of these sessions was that I would walk in with a lyrics sheet and they'd go, "What's that for? [laughs] We know this song better than you do!" With Darius, I said, "What part are you going to sing?" and he said, "Your part. What else?"
Look, all artists are egotistical maniacs with inferiority complexes. [laughs] We're great until we're alone. Once we're left alone, a little voice creeps in and says, "I don't know if we can do that again." When left alone too long, that little voice can talk us into madness. But what I had to do with Shania was just very simple. I said to her, "We have something in common: we are both scared to death." She said, "But you're Lionel Richie!" And I said, "But you're Shania Twain!" And in the middle of her paranoia, once she heard her own voice on that opening line, she loosened up. Greatness comes from fear. Fear can either shut us down and we go home, or we fight through it.
Speaking of fear, were you afraid of what fans might think of you turning their beloved classics into country duets?
I was not only hesitant to do it, but I allowed each artist to do it their way. It's one thing with, say, a Frank Sinatra duets album. The [duet partners] are basically going to go where Sinatra goes. I've now changed the rules of the game. I've given you permission to tear up my song. Tear up the original, keep the melody the way it is or change everything about it -- it's up to you. I'm putting myself way out there doing this. I want Blake Shelton, Jennifer Nettles and everybody else to sing what's comfortable for them, what key changes they want. This was a stretch for me. But everybody came with their A-game. When they said they knew these songs, they were not kidding.
With today's technology, you don't have to be in the same room to do a duet. A lot of artists are just emailing or Skyping in their parts. Why was it important for you to have all duet partners in the studio with you?
What made 'We Are the World' so spectacular was that we didn't have everybody going into a private room to sing. Hell no, we're going to do it together, in a circle, everybody from Kenny Rogers to Bruce Springsteen. You only had one or two lines to sing, to be who you are, and you are so focused on that moment. I wanted to be there with them. And I had more fun ... It reminded me of my days with the Commodores, we just laughed our way through hit records.
Out of all your duet partners, who made you laugh the most during the recording sessions?
Oh my gosh, that's not fair! [laughs] We filmed every session, and once you see the documentary, you'll see that everyone came with their own brand of silliness. I didn't realize how funny Blake Shelton is. Rascal Flatts, too ... and Darius, forget about it! [laughs] Most of the jokes Willie Nelson told, I really can't tell you ... and you certainly couldn't print them! But I can tell you one that was hilarious. I said, "Willie, you look amazing!" He said, "Well I should look amazing, I lost eight ounces." The day before, he was busted in Texas. That shows you how much he wanted to do this. He got out of jail, got on the bus and drove to Nashville. What started out being a band of talented artists ended up being a band of great friends.
One of your closest friends, Kenny Rogers, is on this record singing a song you wrote for him, 'Lady.' How did you make the tune a bit different this time around?
When I first brought the idea to the record company, the first question they asked me was, "What song is Kenny going to do?" It was just understood that he was going to be on it. He's the mascot of the whole thing! In most cases where a person writes a song for an artist, you hear them say "thank you very much," and they go on and take their bow. Kenny actually walked out on stage at the American Music Awards [in 1981] and said, "I couldn't have done this song without my dear friend, Lionel Richie, who wrote the song." And the moment the camera panned to my face, I had a career. I thought I was retiring as a Commodore! I will never forget that.
I saw you and Kenny together at a restaurant here in Nashville recently and was so impressed with how nice you both were to everyone who approached the table. You could barely take bites of your meal, there were so many people coming up to you wanting to say hello or snap a picture, and you were gracious to every single one of them. That being said, does your fame ever overwhelm you?
Other than trying to take your wife out for an anniversary dinner, the way I always approach fans is ... I just like people. I'll hold a conversation at a gas station. It's not about the fame and the fortune, I just like people. So next time you're sitting across from me in the restaurant, you better come up and say hello, too, dang it! [laughs]
I'm a songwriter, and people will tell you the greatest stories about their lives, whether you want to hear it or not. I was at a truck stop between Auburn and Tuskegee, Ala., and a guy said to me, "I met a woman because of your 'Three Times a Lady' song, and I'm stuck on her now, Lionel." I never would've gotten 'Stuck on You' from anybody else. You're not going to get 'Stuck on You' in Hollywood! [laughs]
People have allowed me into their homes, through my words and my music. It's hard to tell somebody to go to hell when their opening line to me is, "I love you." I travel around the world, experiencing every language, every religion ... some places where there's just no reason to smile, because their lives are so difficult. Yet, their opening line to me is, "I love you, Lionel." If I can lift you up in any way, then that was what I was sent here to do. I'm God's messenger.
The album is not out until March, yet you gave us a taste of it on the CMA Awards, performing alongside Little Big Town, Darius Rucker and Rascal Flatts. Are the promotions for the CD starting this early?
I have been holding this record a secret for about eight or nine months now. It's an unusual record; there's such a diverse group of great country. So the setup of this record is going to take a lot longer than just two or three weeks. They asked me, "Do you wanna perform this year or next year?" I said, "Guys, let's do it right now!" I've been trying to sing these songs in restaurants, I'm so ready to put this album out. I want to be there to get this thing going. I want the community of Nashville and country music to be proud. It's been a dream of mine for a long time.
Last question, from one Alabama native to another: Roll Tide or War Eagle?
I grew up 16 miles away from Auburn, and I went to Auburn, so War Eagle! But then when I'm around Alabama or representing Alabama, and not talking to an Auburn fan, then I root for Alabama. I've gotta be politically correct!
Lionel Richie, 'Tuskegee' Track List:
1. "You Are" (With Blake Shelton)
2. "Say You, Say Me" (With Jason Aldean)
3. "Stuck on You" (With Darius Rucker)
4. "Deep River Woman" (With Little Big Town)
5. "My Love" (With Kenny Chesney)
6. "Dancing on the Ceiling" (With Rascal Flatts)
7. "Hello" (With Jennifer Nettles)
8. "Sail On" (With Tim McGraw)
9. "Endless Love" (With Shania Twain)
10. "Just for You" (With Billy Currington)
11. "Lady" (With Kenny Rogers)
12. "Easy" (With Willie Nelson)
13. "All Night Long" (With Jimmy Buffett)