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"Country music has always been about as close to R&B as you can possibly get," Lionel tells The Boot. "We're storytellers. So there's really no difference between 'Oh Baby Don't Leave Me' and 'Take This Job and Shove It.' It's about as basic as it's going to get. 'I love you, I'm hurting, I'm in pain' -- that's the blues. It's been around forever."
Lionel was immersed in the country scene of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, counting Kenny Rogers as one of his best friends and the man who skyrocketed his songwriting career by cutting 'Lady' and thanking Lionel for it on live TV. Late country legend Conway Twitty also cut a now-classic Lionel Richie song, 'Three Times a Lady.' And long before that, the future superstar was listening to country music at home in Tuskegee. "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," Lionel says. "By growing up in Alabama, I had a melting pot of the whole pie: R&B, gospel, country ..."
But it was the making of 'Tuskegee' that gave the Alabama native a lesson in today's country music. "Where [the genre is] now is, we're bringing in new sounds," he says. "Country is bringing in a little rock element ... a little '80s element. Melody is king now. But its just in the music, its not so much in the songwriting, which is still very basic to the storytelling aspect of it. If you really want to talk about how much it's changed, it's not drastic. Taylor Swift came along and put the real 'edge' on it, if you will. How far do you have to go to be at the edge of where country music could be, but it's still just as relevant? If you really want to get down to the story that she tells, it's right there. Country has grown so much now, thanks to the artists who've come along in the last 10 years."
'Tuskegee' includes duets with Kenny Rogers, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, Willie Nelson, Little Big Town, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Jimmy Buffett and Billy Currington. The project is expected to make its debut at No. 1 on the country albums charts next week. Read more of our chat with Lionel and see the CD's full track list here.