If you’re a younger fan of country music, let’s say under the age of 35, then chances are the superstar guests on Tuskegee, Lionel Richie’s new collection of duets in stores March 27, might be a bit more familiar than the man who rocked “Dancing On The Ceiling” in 1986. However, in a twist not often realized, Lionel actually influenced many of the country stars on the album through his own work as a singer/songwriter – and a country one at that.
Alabama, Conway Twitty and Kenny Rogers have all recorded and released Lionel’s music. Kenny even scored a massive hit with “Lady,” a song that ranks No. 47 on Billboard’s All Time Top 100. On Tuskegee, a record consisting of 13 of Lionel’s best-known songs, it becomes increasingly apparent just how much “country” there is in his soul.
For the most part, Tuskegee features standard contemporary country instrumentation. Crisply produced acoustic/electric guitars, light pedal steel, hints of mandolin and a tight rhythm section fill out the majority of tracks. Yet, when listening to classics like “Stuck On You,” a duet of swirling harmonies with Darius Rucker, it’s lyrics like, Oh I’m leaving on that midnight train tomorrow, that stick out for their classic country imagery and ramblin’ man themes. On “Sail On,” Lionel and Tim McGraw trade verses between rolling lines including, It was plain to see that a small town boy like me wasn’t your cup of tea. Strong country elements were always a part of Lionel’s songwriting, and Tuskegee gives him the chance to explore this in more depth.
Lionel was born and raised in Tuskegee, Ala., which gives weight to the album’s title and the larger meaning of returning to his country roots for this project. Though there’s not much twang in his voice, Lionel sounds completely at ease in these arrangements. On “Say You, Say Me,” his soulful phrasings and natural feel flow over the acoustic guitars and pedal steel with an intimate familiarity. Jason Aldean joins here, and the song takes on a spontaneous feel when Lionel suggests singing the refrain ‘one more time’ during the song’s close. Lionel’s veteran touch is felt throughout the record, but most strikingly on rootsy works like “Deep River Woman,” which features the beautifully textured harmonies of Little Big Town. Here, and on songs like the piano-based “Easy” with Willie Nelson, Lionel’s timbre and inflection find the song’s swaying current with uncanny precision and feel, singing the famous line, I’m easy like Sunday morning.
Guests like Kenny Chesney (“My Love”) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (“Hello”) make their presence felt with powerful performances. It was Lionel’s goal to truly collaborate with each artist, letting his duet partner pick which song they would record together. One of the album’s best pairings is “Just For You” with Billy Currington. A moving and emotionally charged country rocker, Billy and Lionel build off each other’s energy to drive the song home. The very nature of a duet gives way to special chemistry and dynamics, and this is evident on first single “Endless Love” with Shania Twain, where the original song transforms into a conversation played out through a love song.
Tuskegee is an impressive accomplishment. Not only does it stand as a cohesive project consisting of many parts and voices, but it also showcases Lionel’s universal talents as a songwriter. There’s an emphasis on lyrical integrity in country music, and on Tuskegee, the lyrics are as pure and honest as the voice singing them.
Key tracks – “Just For You,” “Stuck On You,” “Hello,” “Easy”