Reinventing Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie’s new album, Tuskegee, named after his hometown in Alabama, is an album of duets with country artists, tackling Richie’s most beloved songs. In this sit-down interview, the R&B icon reflects on his storied career, remarks on the current crop of country stars from Blake Shelton (“he’s so funny”) to Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts (“he sings up there where dogs listen”), and reveals that he can only write songs while wearing a hat.

Richie And Friends Record Tuskegee: View The Photo Gallery

You’ve said you aim your songwriting towards people who aren’t in LA or New York, but in the center of the country, the “flyover states.” What’s the philosophy there?

If you want to write things – and I don’t call them gimmicks – I just call them great records. They’re now, they’re today. It’s gonna be here today and gone tomorrow. Why? Because they found a certain thing that was hip for that day – anything that had “groovy” in it. “Groovy’s” gonna stay right where “groovy was”, or anything that had “dog” or anything that had “my bitch.” You’re gonna go, “Oh yeah, I know what era that was.”

And then you find songs that relate to every day living. You find titles that, if it’s 1960, 1980, 1990, 2090, I don’t think they’re gonna change too much from there. “Yesterday” is gonna work just fine. “Easy Like Sunday Morning” is gonna work just fine. “Three Times A Lady” will still be working. In other words, love will never go out of style.

I found that there’s a more loyal group between NY and LA, and that’s where great songs stay and live. And so I think I was very much aware of the fact – if I wasn’t aware of it before, I was certainly aware of it after I met Kenny Rogers. Kenny Rogers is the one that said, “if you find out the right phrase that they keep repeating over again, then that’s called your song forever.” Sinatra told me the same thing. “If you find the song that they keep asking for over and over again, you’ve got yourself a career.”

It’s true. I mean, you’re synonymous with the word “Hello.”

Yeah exactly. “All Night Long” is mine. “Hello” is mine. Exactly right. Still you’ll find certain phrases and if you get it really right, it’s yours. It’s really yours.

You’re from Alabama. I wanted to ask you if you knew this band, The Alabama Shakes, who are coming up now.

No I didn’t know. Before you leave, give me the name down and I’ll check it out. Are they recording, are they out now?

Yeah, they put out an EP and they’re getting all this great attention. They’re on our current cover, actually.

Really? Alright, well let me tell you something. Breaking through now is harder than ever before, because I always say that there are two types of artists: creative artists and created artists. We’ve gotten used to created artists, when actually the whole foundation of music business is based on creative artists. Because the question they want to always ask is, “Why did you do that song? How did you come up with that song?”

Well if you say, “Well I just walked in the studio and somebody gave it to me,” the interview is over. But if you can sit down and go, “well I was thinking at the time when I wrote it…” it’s a whole different story now. Now you get to follow the band for real, you get to follow the singer for real, because they’re coming from the reason I got that song was because I was feeling like this. There’s a reason why you got it. And so, to find people who are now songwriters – with a message and a story, it’s special, man.

With the pop music of today — do you think it’s as good or better than the pop music of the 80’s?

It’s so clever now. Because they’ve taken the best of technology and turned it into… I actually love it, from that standpoint – now that they’ve incorporated the DJs in with the melody and the songwriters. So now it’s a fabulous track on top of a great vocal. The only thing that happens is if they say, “I ran into so and so at a dinner party.” “Can you come up and play your song?” No. “Can you come up and sing your song?” No. “Can you come up and play your song on the guitar?” No. “Can you hum your song?” No. “Is it acapella?” No. So you’ve got a great record – that’s what you’ve got now. The difference is “I Will Survive” is a great song that has transcended now from generation to generation. Even the phrase “Everybody dance now” is forever. For some weird reason, it’s stuck as an iconic thing.

What’s happening right now is you just can’t get the songs to translate to simple form. You got to take the whole track with you to make it work. I have a friend of mine who had a television show and what he wanted to do was go over to the troops over at the Gulf war, and take a handful of great #1 artists over and play for the troops. Everybody said, “I’m there, I’m there,” and all of the sudden they sent these riders of what they’d be needing. And the guy said, “No, we’re gonna be in the back of a flatbed truck and we’re gonna get around a piano or guitar and we’re gonna sing your song,” and everybody said, “I can’t go.”

Also, you’ve got 5-10 of the same producers producing it all. Sometimes I have to ask the question, “Did the last song go off? Oh, this is a new song? Oh okay.” But other than that, just the technology and the cleverness – are you kidding me? I see why it’s my favorite, because it’s so clever.

Your on-screen appearance at last year’s Country Music Awards, now it kind of all makes sense, but to somebody who was not aware of this album coming out…

Oh they didn’t know, they go, “What the heck is Lionel Richie doing?” Know what? I’ve been doing this album so long, I’ve been thinking the whole world – you guys know it’s coming. No. We were in a little vault somewhere in Nashville recording our little behinds off.

You were like the MVP of that show. How did it feel being there?

At first, I thought I was going to be a duck out of water and then I got there and realized that it was so much love backstage and onstage, I felt just right at home. I mean everybody on the red carpet was like, “what year is this?” And everyone was humming the songs. I didn’t feel at all like an alien; because the last time I was at the CMAs, I snuck in the backdoor with Kenny Rogers and Alabama. Alabama was there one year and we did “Deep River Woman” together. But I didn’t sit in the audience. I didn’t hang out. So, this was really where I had a chance to experience the whole nine yards. And I felt just as at home there – it was wonderful. I kept thinking, “Is this how it is all the time or is it just one of those special nights?” It was just how it is all the time. I said, “wow that’s pretty far out, I love this.” The MVP. I love that. I’m gonna keep that in mind, because I felt like it. You know, “Pass me the ball. Give it to Lionel.”

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