You know who's got a country album out right now? Lionel Richie. The same Lionel Richie who started his career in the funk band The Commodores — that's right, the group that made "Brick House."
But on his new album, titled Tuskegee, country artists from Tim McGraw to Darius Rucker re-imagine the ballads that made Richie famous. These are the songs that have become slow-dance staples at proms and weddings everywhere.
"I discovered Lionel Richie in The Commodores," Richie says in an interview with NPR's Audie Cornish. "And it was interesting how it came out, that most of [Richie's songs for the group] are ballads. I must tell you, the easiest way to get a song on a Commodore album, especially when five other guys are writing songs, was to bring in the slow song. So they said, 'Lionel, you do the slow songs and the rest of us will do the funk,' and I said, 'Thank you very much.' "
Growing Up Tuskegee
Tuskegee is the name of Richie's hometown in Alabama. His childhood home was right on the campus of Tuskegee University.
"It's quite interesting that in my growing up I had several influences," Richie says. "We had gospel music on campus. R&B music was, of course, the community, and radio was country music. So I can kind of see where all the influences came from."
Richie says all great music influences him.
"It was very interesting in my world, because I grew up as a fan and I did not know that there was a thing called R&B, pop, country, classical — I just knew that I loved music," Richie says. "So to show you how conflicted I was in my growing up, I'm now walking across campus in the middle of the civil rights movement with a Country Joe and the Fish, Cream, Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix album under my arm. So when I finally got around to thinking about country, I never thought of it as a category. I just thought of it as great, great music."
'Just Too Black' And 'Not Black Enough'
Listening back to Richie's catalog, suddenly country music makes a lot of sense. But sometimes it's hard for artists to cross genres.
"You know what happens a lot of the time, record companies — mainly for just marketing — we have to try to divide things up, so we can clearly market things," Richie says. "But I remember walking into a radio station and the guy said, 'I'm sorry, Lionel, but this record is just too black.' And I said, 'OK, well, it's No. 1 on the R&B [charts].' I came back with the next record, Easy Like Sunday Morning, and the guy said, 'OK, Lionel, now this record is perfect for pop, but it's not black enough.' So, it's just one of those things where I've kind of gone against the grain throughout my entire career. And if I had to have another title for this record besides Tuskegee, it would be called All the Songs That They Told Me Would Ruin My Career. Every time they told me, 'This is not where you're supposed to be,' I just went there, just defying the laws."
Then there's maybe Richie's best-known song, "Hello," accompanied on a new version by singer Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland.
"I remember when I was writing this song, I didn't like it," Richie says. "It was my co-producer, James Carmichael, that continued it. Let me tell you how it got started: He walked into the room, we were going to do a writing session and I played, 'Hello, is it me you're looking for?' And he said, 'Finish that song.' And I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm just joking with you.' I kept thinking, 'That is the corniest phrase. It'll never go.' And finally, I realize now, such a common phrase, but at the same time, the whole world will say it."
A Legacy Of Love
In recent years, some of Richie's contemporaries, like Michael Jackson and now Whitney Houston, have died. Richie says he knows that just surviving in the music business is hard.
"Let me just say that this business looks like this little nice teddy bear that you get into and it just surrounds you and you get to be famous and you ride across town and people chase your car," Richie says. "Let me tell you what this really is — this is a full-grown gorilla. It really is the toughest business in the world to survive, because it gives you everything you could imagine, but it also exposes every part of your insecurities. In other words, if you're a little insecure, it'll make you hugely insecure. If you're into drugs, you're going to be into all the drugs. If you're into girls, all the girls. If you're into fame, it's going to ego you out of your mind. And in most cases, it eats you up. Between the period of '89 through '92, I just bailed out. I just stopped, because it was going too fast and I was actually losing my footing to the point where I was not comfortable flying at that speed or that altitude. So I pulled out, just stopped everything I was doing, and got out."
Richie has survived. And he says he would love for his legacy to be, well, love.
" 'Let the music play on' would be my legacy," Richie says. "I think the whole world is dying to hear someone say, 'I love you.' I think that if I can leave the legacy of love and passion in the world, then I think I've done my job in a world that's getting colder and colder by the day."
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