If you ask me, Lionel Richie should have made an entire country album years if not decades ago. He’s flirted with the genre through his entire forty (!) year career, from early Commodores records like “Gimme My Mule” (I’ll wait for you to look that one up) through hits like “Easy.” He wrote the country/pop smashes “Lady” and “Through The Years” for Kenny Rogers, and partnered up with Alabama back in the days when pop/country crossovers weren’t near as common. While I think an album of originals would’ve been preferable to this collection of Lionel/Commodores classics redone with a who’s who of modern country music, Tuskegee is a quite serviceable piece of work that holds up well when measured against Lionel’s lengthy catalog. And it’s way better than it has any right to be.
Go grab a look at Billboard’s country chart, run your finger down the list, and you’ll see that pretty much all of the genre’s biggest artists came through to pay tribute (minus Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum.) New(er) favorites like Jason Aldean are alongside legends like Willie Nelson. And Kenny Rogers and Lionel finally put a version of “Lady” on record together. Despite all that’s been done to both their faces, those familiar voices are still a delight to hear after all these years.
Unsurprisingly, the songs that fare best are the ones that originally had a bit of a twang to them to begin with. Darius Rucker’s voice blends perfectly with Lionel’s on their version of “Stuck On You,” while Little Big Town impresses with their appearance on “Deep River Woman.” Willie Nelson brings his signature voice and idiosyncratic phrasing to “Easy.” I will admit that hearing notorious pothead Willie sing the line “I wanna be high…so high” sent me into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. Don’t let that the (probably not) unintentional irony take away from your enjoyment of the song, though.
There aren’t too many negative things I can say about Tuskegee–it sounds like you’d expect an album like this to sound. That said, “Dancing On The Ceiling” is one of those songs that should be locked in a safe and never brought out unless someone wants a laugh. While Rascal Flatts try their best (and this version a vast improvement over 1986’s original,) it’s still probably the most skip-worthy track on the album. While profiling the “Endless Love” video a few days ago, I remarked that Shania Twain’s voice sounds incredibly android-like, and the iciness of her vocals sticks out like a sore thumb on this album, which sounds very warm overall. While I’m almost totally positive that the making of this album came out of a marketing meeting as opposed to any organic ideas from Lionel, it’s to Tuskegee’s credit that it doesn’t sound that way.