The master of funk and R&B, Lionel Richie goes a different direction on his new duets album, with ear-pleasing results.Despite a career that has spanned five decades and produced countless hits, the question Lionel Richie asks himself more than any other is, “How can I mess this up?” Hard to believe for anyone familiar with Richie’s work, but he insists it’s really the case. “I’m serious!” says the 62-year-old singer, kicking back one afternoon at his sprawling Beverly Hills home. “My career has been built around taking strange musical risks. So if someone says to me, ‘Lionel, this is perfect, I love what you’re doing,’ I know I haven’t done my job yet. But when they go, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ — then I know I’m going in the right direction.”
Richie’s latest gamble? Tuskegee, a duets album on which he and a cast of Nashville stars — including Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland — remake some of his indelible solo hits as full-fledged country tunes. Music City has long flirted with the man who helped take funk mainstream with the Commodores: In 1980, Kenny Rogers hit No. 1 with the Richie-penned “Lady,” while Conway Twitty famously covered “Three Times a Lady.” But Tuskegee (titled after Richie’s Alabama birthplace) deepens the connection.
During the recording process, Richie showed his collaborators a level of deference often unseen from such a pedigreed artist. “The first thing Lionel said was, ‘So what part do you want to sing?’ ” remembers Darius Rucker, who joined Richie for “Stuck on You.” (It’s one of the album’s standouts, along with a Shania Twain–enriched “Endless Love” and “Deep River Woman”? featuring Little Big Town.) “That shocked me,” Rucker continues. “I expected him to be like, ‘OK, you’re singing this, now do it!’ ”
The experience wasn’t without surprise for Richie, either. He remembers being floored by how familiar all of his duet partners were with his catalog. “At each session I’d walk into the studio with a lyric sheet and they’d go, ‘What’s that for?’ ” he says, laughing. “I keep telling people: I’m not going country — I’ve already been there.”