Interview: Lionel Richie talks country, a Las Vegas residency and much more

Lionel Richie now knows what it feels like to give birth. The superstar expected it to only take a few weeks to record “Tuskegee,” his new album out Monday  (March 26) that pairs him with a number of top country acts on new versions of his classic tunes. Instead, the process dragged on for nearly 10 months.

“We had a baby, and by the way it was the most painful baby I got in my whole life, but in the end, look at the baby,” he says, glowing with pride. And what a baby it is- with many, many parents. Among the acts recording both his solo and Commodores hits with Richie are Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Sugarland”s Jennifer Nettles, Blake Shelton, Jimmy Buffett, Shania Twain and Willie Nelson. The album also reunites Richie with Kenny Rogers, who took Richie’s “Lady” to the top of three Billboard charts in 1980: country, Hot 100 and adult contemporary. Rogers’ version also reached No. 42 on the Top Black Singles chart.

Before the first volume has even been released, Richie is already hoping for a volume two and there”s plenty of hits left off “Tuskegee,” including “Still,” “Three Times A Lady,”  and “Sweet Love,”  to warrant one. “They”ll be a part two with more new songs,” Richie predicts.

Richie has been stumping for the new album harder then the Republican presidential candidates and his enthusiasm about the project is infectious. He recently held a party at his Beverly Hill mansion for select radio program directors and press. It”s as gorgeous and lovely a home as you would imagine (my whole apartment would fit into the drive way). He played each of the album”s 13 songs and gave amusing anecdotes about recording each one.

The acts picked their own songs, many made their selections based on memories a certain tune triggered for them. Richie encouraged them to make the tune their own. “They”d say, ‘But Mr. Richie that will overshadow you,” and I”d say, ‘Exactly. What a wonderful thing”,” he said when I interviewed him at the end of the evening. “What I”ve found in artistry sometimes is there”s an ego that happens where I have to out sing you or outperform you. That”s if you”re purely a singer. I”m purely a writer.”

By approaching the project as the writer, his attitude was. “How can you make my kids shine?  We”re going to buff up my babies… Someone said to me tonight, which I thought was the best compliment ever, ‘Why am I thinking that this version of your songs is better than the old version?” I said, ‘Because it”s the new version”.”

The boldest artist was Darius Rucker, who flatly told Richie that he was singing Richie”s part on “Stuck On You.” “By the way, he was dead serious,” Richie recalls with a laugh. “Can you imagine telling Frank Sinatra  ‘I”m singing your part and you have to find your part.” Frank would be out of there. [I said], ‘You guys, I want you to make this songs yours and I”ll kind of scat in between. I”ll be around.”

Most of the album was recorded in Nashville, but Richie traveled to the Bahamas to record an island-flavored “Endless Love” with Shania Twain, who was recording for the first time after going through a debilitating vocal paralysis that left her unable to sing.

“I think the one that was the most rewarding was pulling Shania out of that thing she was in. I didn”t realize it, she was gone,” he recalls. “By the way, she”s still gone because I need to talk to her more to get her back, but the more she performs, the more she”s going to get it back. But she was scared to death. I think [Vegas] will help her.” Twain starts a residency at Caesars Palace in December.

Speaking of, is Richie the next artist, following in the footsteps of Elton John, Cher, Celine Dion, Garth Brooks and Twain, to start a concert residency in Las Vegas? He seems a natural fit given his raft of hits and his wide appeal.

“I would love to do that ” Richie says, and admits he”s been approached already. He thinks it will happen eventually, but it is likely a ways off.

“It would be a great thing after a while, probably a couple more years, where I”ll have a [residency] where I can stay here, hang out, go there… commute or even what”s happening right now with Garth Brooks: he flies in and out [after each weekend”s shows].  I”m still a songwriter. There”s something about flying around the world. By the time I get home, I know the next album, I know the next song.”

Richie will be hitting Vegas the weekend of March 31 for the Academy of Country Music Awards, which air live April 1. The following night, CBS will tape “Lionel Richie and Friends: A Lifetime of Hits.”  The special, which will air later this Spring, will feature many of the artists who appear on “Tuskegee,” as well as several others, including The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum.

Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda

“Tuskegee” Tracklisting

“You Are” with Blake Shelton
“Say You, Say Me” with Jason Aldean
“Stuck On You” with Darius Rucker
“Deep River Woman” with Little Big Town
“My Love” with Kenny Chesney
“Dancing On The Ceiling” with Rascal Flatts
“Hello” with Jennifer Nettles
“Sail On” with Tim McGraw
“Endless Love” with Shania Twain
“Just For You” with Billy Currington
“Lady” with Kenny Rogers
“Easy” with Willie Nelson
“All Night Long” with Jimmy Buffett