Album Review: Lionel Richie’s ‘Tuskegee’ pairs him with country’s finest

By calling his new album, “Tuskegee,” after his hometown, instead of the much-more accurate, “Nashville,” Lionel Richie is determined to let fans  that he grew up listening to country music.

For those who think it”s a stretch for the popmeister to re-record some of his biggest hits with such country stars as Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, remember that Richie has a legacy at country radio: Conway Twitty recorded “Three Times A Lady,” Alabama performed “Deep River Woman” with him, and, of course, Kenny Rogers took “Lady” to the top of not only the country charts, but Billboard”s Hot 100 and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks.  (Read my interview with Richie here).

The album, which is out today (March 26), will find its broadest appeal among Richie fans who grew up hearing these songs on lpop radio, but have now switched to country radio because its playlist more readily resembles the music they grew up with. Plus, Richie”s songs are so mainstream and populist, that it”s no surprise they fit well with country music”s current pop-country feel…and when in doubt, just add a fiddle or a banjo.

Richie proves himself a very gracious host: in many cases, he doesn”t come in until the second verse, or later, and he generally takes a back seat to the country artist vocally.  An exception is on his duet with McGraw on  “Sail On,” on which he does most of the heavy lifting. If you”re a fan of the song (which I am), the arrangement is note-perfect recreation of the original (until the very end). Same with a sweet remake of  “My Love” with Kenny Chesney.  Even though Richie takes the lead in “Easy” with Willie Nelson, it quickly becomes a true duet (plus, you have to giggle when Willie sings “I want to be high, so high.”).

If you”re a harmony fan, there”s plenty here to sink your teeth into. Almost every song features Richie harmonizing around the lead vocal. He and Darius Rucker meld together gorgeously on “Stuck on You”;  Little Big Town, whose four-part harmonies are already their trademark, find room for one more on “Deep River Woman.”

Richie also pairs with reluctant songbird Shania Twain, who was struggling to come back from paralyzing vocal troubles when the two recorded “Endless Love” last year, though you wouldn”t know it from their lilting version here. Recorded in the Bahamas, the two add a ukulele to amp up the island feel. Similarly,  on Richie”s duet with Jimmy Buffett, steel drums take you straight to a Caribbean festival (despite Buffett”s very low-key vocals).

Unlike Buffett, Rascal Flatts show up ready  to party on their banjo-laden, high-energy version of “Dancing On the Ceiling.” It”s a raucous affair that trades the banjo for a screaming guitar about half-way through. Likewise, Jason Aldean starts “Say You, Say Me”  with a reassuring pedal steel, but somewhere along the line it veers into a jarring “A Day in the Life”-like psychedlic side trip, before returning to the previous gentility as if it were a weird acid flashback.

If you”re not a fan of the song originally, these versions won”t likely change your mind. And, in some cases, the artists try a little too hard to make the song their own, such as Jennifer Nettles” yelp when she comes in on the second verse of “Hello.” Though their harmonies are beautiful later, her over-singing belies the wistful contemplation in the original. Other recreations sound surprisingly tepid, like the duet with Blake Shelton on “You Are.”

Richie puts in a little adlib at the end of many songs, such as “Thank you Kenny,” at the end of his and Kenny Rogers” remake of “Lady”  or “good job, my brothers,” at the end of Rascal Flatt”s “Dancing on the Ceiling.” It”s an endearing way of letting fans know these were created with all hands in the studio at the same time.

Twelve of the songs will be readily familiar to most pop music fans;  the album also includes an adult-contemporary radio ready “Just For You,” a song previously unreleased in the U.S., with Billy Currington. 

Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda