Kenny Rogers reprised Lady, a song he took to No. 1 on both the pop and country charts in 1980. Little Big Town took Deep River Woman, the song that gave Richie and Alabama a top 10 hit on the country charts in 1987.
So if Richie wouldn't listen to Rogers and Twitty, what finally convinced him? "Copyrights," Richie says. "The actual songs."
Richie, 62, started hearing singers like Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean talk about how much they admired his songs and how his music had influenced them. He realized that his legacy was more keenly felt in contemporary country music than in a modern R&B scene dominated by hip-hop and dance.
"So am I coming to country, or am I joining my songs that are already country?" Richie asks rhetorically. "These stories were basically little signatures of where (the singers') lives were at a certain point in time. It made it easier for me to go, 'OK, those are my kids.' That's basically what this album is."
Darius Rucker, who recorded Stuck on You for Tuskegee, considers Richie an act on par with The Beatles. "You can't even say he's an idol — he's more a part of your DNA."
When Rucker got the call to sing with Richie, he knew exactly what tune he wanted to do. He'd been working on it his entire adult life: Stuck on You came out the summer Rucker turned 18.
"Honestly, the first time I did it, I didn't want to mess up, so I just closed my eyes and imagined I was in the car," Rucker says. "I've ridden in the car and sung that part so many times."
Tuskegee's Say You, Say Me duet with Aldean got a new rock-oriented bridge. "I realized this guy's a rocker," Richie says. "So I said, 'I'm going to custom-design it like I think you would have done if you were with me back then.' "
Recording with Blake Shelton showed Richie just how well the singers knew his material. "I kept forgetting that when they say they know the song, they're not studying it to come in and sing. This is the song they like to sing." So Shelton ran down You Are four times, nailing the song perfectly each time. "The problem was, after he left, I couldn't figure out where I was going to come in."
Richie will appear on Shelton's show, The Voice, tonight (NBC, 8 ET/PT). A busy slate of TV appearances includes performances Tuesday with Little Big Town on the Today show and with Aldean on TheLate Show With David Letterman, followed by a Wednesday interview on Piers Morgan Tonight. He'll appear Sunday on the Academy of Country Music Awards. On April 2, he'll tape a special, ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends — In Concert, that will air April 13 on CBS.
People who grew up with Richie's music will know most of Tuskegee's songs, which come from the nine top 10 pop hits he had with The Commodores between 1976 and 1982 or the 13 consecutive solo singles that reached the top 10 between 1981 and 1987. But Just for You, the song Richie sings with Billy Currington, was a 2004 hit in Germany but relatively unknown in the USA.
"They said, 'You need to write a new song,' (and) I said, 'No, I need to introduce that song again,' " Richie says.
As popular as songs like Endless Love, Easy and Hello remain 30 years after their release, it's easy to forget just how different Richie's ballads sounded from the rest of late '70s R&B radio. "Everybody's celebrating now, but back then, it was a waltz in the middle of disco, or Sail On in the middle of funk," Richie says.
Richie listened to plenty of country music as a child. "Country was called 'radio' back then," says Richie, who recalls Tuskegee station WRBL, along with Nashville station WLAC, which had a heavy dose of R&B, and Wolfman Jack blasting out from the Texas/Mexico border. "Yes, Stax Records came in, Motown came in — in high school. But in my elementary years, it was country and gospel."
Tuskegee takes its name from the Alabama town where Richie was born and attended Tuskegee Institute on a tennis scholarship. He still owns the family home there. So when the time came to name his album, Richie asked himself, "Do I call it Nashville or where I really grew up?
"Not only am I celebrating where all the songs were written but the history of how I grew up, and the celebration of those people."