My first trip to America was marred by only one thing: I could not find a vinyl copy of Tuskegee, Lionel Richie’s long-threatened country album of duets. It was nowhere to be found. So I did something no one ever does anymore: I bought a CD.
I had to.
It’s the LION! Lionel. My man.
He was there for me through childhood. Not quite a babysitter, but a soothing voice. A trusted voice. Soon a vice. I collected up the 80s solo albums from whatever was left of the record collection that mum and dad one-time cared about. And I went back to the Commodores. (They were there for me too. It was never just the Lionel Show. Even though the Commodres was often The Lionel Show!)
Through high school and early university it would have been secret-shame or guilty-pleasure stuff…if I ever believed in such nonsense. No chance. I’ve always worn my Lionel Fandom like a badge.
This motherfucker can write a song, yo! He sings the shit out of them too. He’s a great musician.
But it was finding a cheap copy of that Back to Front compilation (the one with a few new songs from the early 90s and then solo and Commodores highlights) that really made me a flag-waver for the chap. Dude, wrote some fucking monster-hits and some great, deep cuts.
It’s also really all anyone needs – and the last necessary thing. By all means go see the shows – he still delivers. I know. I saw him. I even interviewed him. He’s a great chat! Gives the talk. Knows how to do it, knows which side is buttered and how to keep spreading the news…
But no one needs anything new from Lionel. It’s all there across the 1970s and 80s (and even the early 90s – because Do It To Me is a relaxed R’n’B gem and Love, Oh Love is one hell of an emo-af power-ballad – What a blessed thing!)
That of course didn’t stop me dipping a toe in for the below-middling Louder Than Words and other unneeded post-Greatest Hits albums.
But Tuskegee was the one I didn’t know I was waiting for (but kinda did know!)
Lionel Richie is country-as-fuck. Or at the least many of his songs are. Kenny Rogers knew this long ago. And Lionel has always known how to get paid. The Commodores wrote and recorded some serious funk tunes. They also nailed country balladry. That’s because Tuskegee, the place, is in Al-a-fucking-bama. And Tuskegee, the album, is Lionel coming home. With friends.
So let’s dive in…
This cheese-fest starts with the LION teaming up with Blake Shelton to sing You Are (originally from the self-titled solo debut). “You are the sun/you are the rain” is about as deep as the lyrics get. But it’s somehow even more shallow when LR is teamed with Mr. Shelton – the man that allegedly hid a wedding ring in a 50-piece bucket of chicken in order to propose to Gwen Stefani. Against weepy steel guitars they basically compete to sing a prosaic love song. There’s big drums and bright acoustic gat and if they are the rain then the production is the sun – sunny as all fucky-doo!
I don’t know who Jason Aldean is – but his hat makes it look like he means business in a Waylon-way – and so he’s up next to join the big man for Say You, Say Me. This is one of the big tracks from Dancing On The Ceiling which was the first Richie album I remember – inescapable radio hits and my folks played it at their non-coke spa parties which were safe as and straight but feel like they should have had someone throwing firecrackers aimlessly like that in that bit near the end of the movie Boogie Nights. Lionel Richie is one of the best prosaic lyric writers – by best I mean shit, but funny and kinda brilliant – and Say You follows up “Believe in who you are” with “you are a shining star”. And all this on the bedrock of “Say you, say me, say it for always, that’s the way it should be”. The poet Muhammad Ali would have knocked this sucker out before the house lights went down. Also “I had a dream. I had an awesome dream”. Martin Luther King’s coming back to slap the shitty taste from Lionel’s turd-eating grin. Fuck.
“Darias Rucker” is the reinvention of Hootie and the Blowfish lead singer Darias Rucker. By which I mean he was always called Darius. But now he’s a solo country star going under this own name. But he’s still Hootie to me. I’m never not-calling-him-Hootie. So, anyway, Hootie and Lionel hitch up for a bromance-ride through Stuck On You originally from The LION’s second solo album of mega-hits, Can’t Slow Down. Here they basically nail this song. Good and proper. It gets almost porno really. They enter into a one-upmanship battle of politeness and hospitality as they try to outdo each other with their repetition of the line, “Mighty glad you stayed”. It’s as if they keep finding an extra inch as they swing their dicks at one another for approval. The only sour note is that at the end Lionel’s playing trump card by saying “Mighty glad you came around Darius”. When we all know the killer-line would have been “Mighty glad you stayed, Hootie!” Missed opportunity.
I didn’t know what – or who – a Little Big Town was or is, but apparently it’s a country band. They’re bloody good actually. Though I’ve not investigated them beyond here where they back LR on a version of his Deep River Woman (also from the ‘Dancing’) album. They provide the country-glue. And he could have made a whole album with them and it probably would have been very good.
Same with Kenny Chesney guesting for a duet of My Love. We’re back to Lionel’s solo debut for the original take of this – and the updated cheese-factor version is probably quite sublime or thoroughly awful. Maybe it’s both.
But what is fucking horrible is this party-rock rendition of the title track from Dancing on the Ceiling. Rascal Flatts is the band in the backing-seat/s. And they’re meant to give it a hootenanny feel I guess but it’s both ill-suited and horrible. They fling some banjos at it like a horse backfoot-flings its dung and whatever it fucking feels like. They also add some polite-hillbilly accents in support. And it’s so gross that my favourite thing to do is play it in the car with people that haven’t heard it before. It’s a true test. Of friendship. And willpower. For all involved.
Jennifer Nettles duets on Hello – and the fingerpicked arrangement for the intro is pretty good, given the iconic status of this song for its video as much as its hit-single peak-catalogue standing. Some fiddles creep in and the “countrified” rendition goes over. Was it needed? Fuck no! But I do like when Nettles rips into singing and the drumbeat ramps up behind her. She means the shit out of this nonsense. And that is good. I think?
Tim McGraw guests on the first Commodores song, Sail On. It’s a bit of a hard-sell for me because I think Sail On is one of the great songs by Lionel. So although he manages to sound pretty good singing it in this style after all these years I just don’t want to hear a new version of it. Actually, they keep it pretty faithful, just some steel guitars in the background to remind you of the country aims and ambitions of this money-grab of an album. But I’m just hearing that perfect, sublime late 70s vibe of the original even as I pretend to be hearing this.
Shania Twain is to country music in the 90s/00s and Diana Ross was to pop and R’n’B in the 70s/80s. Well. That’s my guess anyway. That’s why she was brought in for a country-version of Endless Love. This doesn’t really work because they put a pop backbeat to what was an intentionally overwrought ballad. Now, I love the original. This is Lionel owning schmaltz. Something he could have been the fucking almighty king of – but here it’s softened. I’ve also never thought anything of Shania Twain at all. Not a good singer. Not a bad singer. Not a singer.
Just For You is next, the title track off a 2004 album by Lionel that means nothing. This is not great at all – even with Billy Currington helping out. Who’s he? Fuck knows really. Some country git that looks and sounds a bit like whatever Bradley Cooper was trying to do and be in that new version of a Star is Born.
And it could have been easy to give up – easy like, er, a weekend day I guess…but then The LION knows he needs some big guns.
So Kenny Rogers is wheeled out (almost literally) for a duet on Lady, a song written for Kenny first of all but now they both sing it together and it’s like The Thunder Rolls by Garth Brooks doesn’t even matter…because actually this is ominous country balladry. This is fucking it. (Could read: this is fucking shit, also – but, hey, fuck you!)
Then it’s Big Willie Styles for the Commodores classic, Easy. Yep, Willie Nelson & “Trigger” (his guitar) make Easy all their own. The only thing wrong with this is that Lionel is there at all. It would have been better if Willie had just taken it and made it his own. That’s what he does with a song. But this is Lionel’s project. Fairplay. And fuck this is way better than it perhaps should be.
We close with Jimmy Buffett bringing his insulting, charmless Parrothead faux-Caribbean strut to a version of All Night Long. Another of Lionel’s silliest songs served up with a phoney fiesta feel.
I should hate everything about this album. But I love it. I love it because I love Lionel. And sticking with him is a bit like defending the shit bits of Wings if you’re a Paul McCartney fan (I’ll be doing that later, potentially – in another post for this series). Or owning every Bob Dylan album. (Also guilty).
One of the things I loved most about Tuskegee was the smart marketing move of it. Lionel Richie knows a good way to get paid. And I should hate that. But I have to admire it with him. It’s part of who he is and has always been. And this was a genius move – getting established country artists to bring their audience to his existing classics. Genius.
I fucking wallow in this bucket-of-shit album because it’s albums like this that let people know you’re truly a fan. And a fucking lunatic to boot. And fan is short of fanatic. And fanatics are fucking loose-change looney-tune nutbags. It’s good to own that. Which is why I still own this.