In his parlor, Lionel Richie has a huge wall filled with nothing but American Music Awards trophies, People's Choice statuettes, and Grammys.
One thing you might notice, though: None of them is engraved with the words "best country recording."
He might be aiming to change that with Tuskegee, his forthcoming debut as a would-be country artist. But it's not so much a matter of Mohammed going to the mountain that is country music, as it is that mountain coming to him. The album features duets with 13 of the genre's biggest artists on Richie's prior hits, and you could argue endlessly (and lovingly) about who adapted more toward whom, or what. With some exceptions, the songs remain very much in Richie's classic middle-of-the-road '80s pop style, albeit with a bit more acoustic instrumentation or steel guitar. Which is to say, they sound a lot like 2010s country.
There's not a song on the album that couldn't potentially be a country radio smash this year — depending on which artists and their labels are willing to grant him singles rights, of course. Among the guests are Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, and Rascal Flatts. If we had to pick highlights from a first listen, we might go with the two songs that seem most dramatically altered: "Say You, Say Me," with Jason Aldean, which features a moodier and totally transformed arrangement, and "Hello," which instantly becomes 10,000 times more dramatic with the addition of Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles as a duet partner.
Richie invited country radio programmers from around the country to fly in for a listening party at his Beverly Hills estate over the weekend. Our Country was on the scene as Richie stood on his house's tented back steps and offered track-by-track introductions for the assembled 50 or so programmers. Here are a few of the recollections Richie offered about recording the duets:
Blake Shelton/"You Are"
"I've never seen a plaid shirt that large on a man before!"
Kenny Chesney/"My Love"
"I thought Kenny would want to do 'All Night Long.' It sounds like him! But he came in and said his favorite song [of mine] 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!"
Jason Aldean/"Say You Say Me"
"These guys must do thousands of pushups a day!" [He then did an impression of Aldean walking in the room, chest-first.] "Jason walked in and he was very shy. He said, 'Mr. Richie, I want to do "Say You Say Me".' I said, really? He said, '"Say You Say Me" is the bomb!'… Jason's a rocker. He likes power chords. He likes muscle. I said 'Okay, but we'll mess up the whole equation.' [We re-arranged] the song to make it like [Bob Dylan's] 'Lay Lady Lay.'"
"There are people in the business you can come to and say, 'I want you to make this song yours. Pretend it's not mine. Forget about me. Own it.' You can say that Darius, and [know] it's gonna be respectful. You don't say that to Jennifer Nettles. I made a mistake. I said, 'Jennifer, take this song and sing it the way you want to sing it and I'll match your vocal.' Wrong! I don't have to tell you. She said her favorite song is 'Hello.' And then you will hear the struggle of Lionel Richie trying to get back on his own song… It took me two weeks to recover from that vocal, honest to God. I looked at her and said 'Jennifer, at some point, breathe! There is another note coming.'… But I looked at her and realized, this girl is breathing. She just breathes every 40 minutes."
Rascal Flatts/"Dancing on the Ceiling"
"By this time, I no longer suggested songs, because I'm wrong [about what artists want to do]… 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 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… I don't even have to tell you that it took half of my life away just putting me on that record with Gary [LeVox]. 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... 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."
Shania Twain/"Endless Love"
"I actually called her, not knowing that Shania had not had a note come out of her mouth in seven years. Little old naïve me… I said, 'I'm thinking about "Endless Love"… I promise I will guide you through this song'—not knowing she was in complete vocal paralysis." Twain agreed but wanted to cut the song at her beach house in the Bahamas to avoid people knowing about the session. "I'm thinking, this is the most secret song I've ever done in my life… We fly in with a stealth crew… I wake up in the morning, go into the living room, there's Oprah's OWN, the entire show, sitting in my living room! I said, 'Guys, you gotta get out of here. She's scared to death of people.' They said, 'No no no, Lionel, we're with Shania. She's doing a show called 'How I Got My Voice Back.' I'm now doing an interview saying, she's got her voice—I think! They're saying 'No, Lionel, up to this point, she's not been able to sing.' Now I'm getting scared, because we spent the [album] budget to come down! She walks in and says, 'I don't think I can do this.' That's when I told the cameras to cut off… I , 'I promise you, when you walk into that room and stand in front of that microphone and open your mouth, you will turn into Shania Twain'… The first note you will hear from Shania on 'Endless Love' is the first time she opened her mouth to sing."
"Willie and I have been friends for a very long time… Let me just give you the setting here. He was busted in Texas, they let him out, he gets on the bus and drives to Nashville. He literally gets off the bus for the session. I say to him, 'Willie, you look amazing.' His answer was profound. He says 'Well, I should, I lost eight ounces.'… How many artists in the history of the music business can get Willie Nelson to sing 'I want to be high'?"
Billy Currington/"Just for You"
"He is the nicest guy I've ever met. I felt like a scout leader. I felt like Uncle Richie. I keep trying to feel sorry for him—until he opens his mouth, and then I realize, this kid's trying to kill me."
Jimmy Buffett/"All Night Long"
"All the artists I thought would do 'All Night Long' didn't. And then Jimmy calls me up, and I said, 'You mean I can get all the Parrotheads to follow me?'"
Richie added that, although this will be marketed as a country album in the States, it's being treated as a pop album in other territories around the world. Which, he added, could pay off as exposure for some of his duet partners who haven't gotten so much attention in country-averse nations. "The label reps told me, 'You are taking them [country artists] around the world. I didn't realize. We're piggybacking this entire beautiful industry where they 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… [Can you imagine] Kenny Chesney in the middle east!"