A country boy from Tuskegee reconnects with his unlikely roots 

By Russell Hall

Lionel Richie is a giant of soul, R&B and pop music, having scored hit singles and sold albums in the multimillions since the mid-1970s—first with his group the Commodores and, since 1982, as a solo artist. But the music that first caught the ear of this Tuskegee, Ala., native was very different from either the dance-floor funk of the Commodores or the ebullient pop of solo smashes like “All Night Long (All Night)” and “Dancing on the Ceiling.” “Back in Tuskegee in the late ’50s and early ’60s, all you heard were popular country artists of the day,” says Richie, now 62. “It’s what I grew up with. I didn’t even think of it as country music, it was just music.” He credits country with instilling in him an emphasis on melody and lyrical storytelling. “I didn’t realize it, but I was being indoctrinated with something that would come out in me later as a songwriter,” he says.

Even as he scored triumphs like co-writing (with Michael Jackson) the all-star charity smash “We Are the World,” not to mention winning five Grammys and an Oscar, he kept a hand in country music. In 1980 he wrote and produced the chart-topping “Lady” for longtime friend Kenny Rogers, and hit the country charts himself with “Stuck on You” and “Deep River Woman” (the latter featuring country group Alabama). He’s performed at the Country Music Association Awards three times, and in April the Academy of Country Music will honor him with an all-star televised concert in Las Vegas.

Now Richie has fully immersed himself in the genre with his new album, Tuskegee, which finds him recreating many of his classics as duets with country stars like Blake Shelton (“You Are”), Tim McGraw (“Sail On”), Willie Nelson (“Easy”) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (“Hello”). “It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio,” he says. Richie spoke with us from Nashville about the new album, his complicated relationship with success and his rich legacy.

Why make this album?

Recording a country album has been on my bucket list for a long time. I came to Nashville thinking I’d do just a couple of duets. But as we got into it, I started thinking, “Wow, I’ve got Willie Nelson, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw on this album. Let’s keep going.” From a layman’s point of view, I was thinking, “I’m doing songs with some great country singers,” not realizing that country music today is divided into contemporary and traditional country. But I just plowed right in and put them all on the same album without any of those considerations. I was told to expect to finish in three weeks. Instead, nearly 10 months passed before I put the album to rest.

Who surprised you most?

Blake Shelton and Jennifer Nettles, when it comes to straight up lung power. I had to remind them both I had to sing those songs, too. (laughs) And then the rendition that just melted me completely was the one by Willie Nelson. He makes “Easy” sound like it was written for him.

Did you give the artists instructions?

I told them to fit the songs to themselves, to do the songs as if they were performing them onstage tomorrow. That was a good thing in that it took me out of my comfort zone. These are songs I could normally sing in my sleep, but now I had to be wide awake. In that sense they became brand new. Still, one compliment I kept getting was, “You have to sing this song the way the melody goes.” If you turned these songs into nursery rhymes, you would still have to sing those melodies.

When did you first write?

After I joined the Commodores [in 1968]. I played by ear and thought all songwriters had to read and write music. Then I began learning there were great writers like Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson who couldn’t read music. After we joined Motown [in 1972] I met these writers face to face. Motown was the best incubator in the world. It allowed me to fit in a very safe environment and grow without the pressure to have a hit record, or even be a lead singer. We started out as the opening act for the Jackson 5—the pressure wasn’t on us so much as it was on them.

How did those first writing attempts turn out for you?

Actually, quite good. I didn’t realize it until I started bringing material to the Motown meetings. Someone said, “You wrote that song? You got any more?” The third or fourth song, “Happy People” [1974], became a No. 1 R&B hit for the Temptations. I wrote it with Jeffrey Bowen. After that, the songwriting guys asked me if I had more material. I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to give any more away.” They didn’t realize the Commodores were signed as a group to the label. From that point forward, I started writing song after song for the Commodores.

How did you write “Lady?”

The original title of “Lady” was “Baby.” I flew to Las Vegas to meet with Kenny, and he said, “You know, I married a real lady. I’m a country guy, and I have no business with a lady like this. By the way Lionel, what’s the name of this song you wrote for me?”  I said, “Lady.” (laughs) There was no way I was going to say “Baby” at that point. Kenny had given me the concept for the lyrics, the things I needed to finish the song. It became an ode to his marriage at that time.

What was it like going solo?

Suddenly everything was on me, and I wasn’t used to being singled out. I was used to being in that cocoon where if anything went wrong it was shared among all of us. I originally figured I could keep the Commodores going while having a solo career—but the nature of the group concept wouldn’t allow that. You couldn’t have the group while also having that much notoriety being focused on one person. That was the period where I was most frightened. If God could have called me and said, “Lionel, the next five years are a shoo-in, don’t worry,” I would have had no problem. But from day to day you have doubts.

After that success, you barely recorded between 1986 and 1996. Why? 

I started thinking more about my family and about what I had missed along my journey. My dad was dying, right there in front of me. How much time had I spent with him? Had that been quality time? People kept telling me I needed to go back and do another album while things were hot. But I couldn’t. That would have meant going on tour, and if I went on tour I wouldn’t be able to be with Dad. [Lionel Richie Sr. died in 1990.] It was a confusing time. A lot of things were coming unglued. But time away was the best thing that could have happened for me. It allowed me to recharge.

Describe your playing style.

I don’t play piano that much. I tend to just block a few chords. Keeping things sparse allows me to be more creative with the melodies. The more space you take up playing, the less you have for the vocal melody. The vocal makes up for my limitations as a player.

Know a hit when you write one?

Wish I could say that was the case. Three songs I wanted to pull from the Can’t Slow Down album were “All Night Long,” “Running With the Night” and “Hello.” And the one I wanted to pull from the Commodores album was “Brick House.” (laughs) Fortunately people around me know better.

Do you think about your legacy?

Only in the past year have I begun to think about that. When you start out, you’re just looking to get played on the radio. Twenty years pass, and people start using the word “standards” to describe your songs. We’re getting ready to stage a celebration of the songs themselves—the event in Las Vegas—and you step back and think, “Wow, how did all this happen?” It’s hitting home, after all those years in Tuskegee, all those years writing songs at home, in the back of a bus or on a plane, to have come full circle.


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