Hello? Is This The Country Album You're Looking For?

Apr 2, 2012
Originally published on April 2, 2012 4:12 pm

You know who's got a country album out right now? Lionel Richie. The same Lionel Richie who started his career in the funk band The Commodores — that's right, the group that made "Brick House."

But on his new album, titled Tuskegee, country artists from Tim McGraw to Darius Rucker re-imagine the ballads that made Richie famous. These are the songs that have become slow-dance staples at proms and weddings everywhere.

"I discovered Lionel Richie in The Commodores," Richie says in an interview with NPR's Audie Cornish. "And it was interesting how it came out, that most of [Richie's songs for the group] are ballads. I must tell you, the easiest way to get a song on a Commodore album, especially when five other guys are writing songs, was to bring in the slow song. So they said, 'Lionel, you do the slow songs and the rest of us will do the funk,' and I said, 'Thank you very much.' "

Growing Up Tuskegee

Tuskegee is the name of Richie's hometown in Alabama. His childhood home was right on the campus of Tuskegee University.

"It's quite interesting that in my growing up I had several influences," Richie says. "We had gospel music on campus. R&B music was, of course, the community, and radio was country music. So I can kind of see where all the influences came from."

Richie says all great music influences him.

"It was very interesting in my world, because I grew up as a fan and I did not know that there was a thing called R&B, pop, country, classical — I just knew that I loved music," Richie says. "So to show you how conflicted I was in my growing up, I'm now walking across campus in the middle of the civil rights movement with a Country Joe and the Fish, Cream, Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix album under my arm. So when I finally got around to thinking about country, I never thought of it as a category. I just thought of it as great, great music."

'Just Too Black' And 'Not Black Enough'

Listening back to Richie's catalog, suddenly country music makes a lot of sense. But sometimes it's hard for artists to cross genres.

"You know what happens a lot of the time, record companies — mainly for just marketing — we have to try to divide things up, so we can clearly market things," Richie says. "But I remember walking into a radio station and the guy said, 'I'm sorry, Lionel, but this record is just too black.' And I said, 'OK, well, it's No. 1 on the R&B [charts].' I came back with the next record, Easy Like Sunday Morning, and the guy said, 'OK, Lionel, now this record is perfect for pop, but it's not black enough.' So, it's just one of those things where I've kind of gone against the grain throughout my entire career. And if I had to have another title for this record besides Tuskegee, it would be called All the Songs That They Told Me Would Ruin My Career. Every time they told me, 'This is not where you're supposed to be,' I just went there, just defying the laws."

Then there's maybe Richie's best-known song, "Hello," accompanied on a new version by singer Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland.

"I remember when I was writing this song, I didn't like it," Richie says. "It was my co-producer, James Carmichael, that continued it. Let me tell you how it got started: He walked into the room, we were going to do a writing session and I played, 'Hello, is it me you're looking for?' And he said, 'Finish that song.' And I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm just joking with you.' I kept thinking, 'That is the corniest phrase. It'll never go.' And finally, I realize now, such a common phrase, but at the same time, the whole world will say it."

A Legacy Of Love

In recent years, some of Richie's contemporaries, like Michael Jackson and now Whitney Houston, have died. Richie says he knows that just surviving in the music business is hard.

"Let me just say that this business looks like this little nice teddy bear that you get into and it just surrounds you and you get to be famous and you ride across town and people chase your car," Richie says. "Let me tell you what this really is — this is a full-grown gorilla. It really is the toughest business in the world to survive, because it gives you everything you could imagine, but it also exposes every part of your insecurities. In other words, if you're a little insecure, it'll make you hugely insecure. If you're into drugs, you're going to be into all the drugs. If you're into girls, all the girls. If you're into fame, it's going to ego you out of your mind. And in most cases, it eats you up. Between the period of '89 through '92, I just bailed out. I just stopped, because it was going too fast and I was actually losing my footing to the point where I was not comfortable flying at that speed or that altitude. So I pulled out, just stopped everything I was doing, and got out."

Richie has survived. And he says he would love for his legacy to be, well, love.

" 'Let the music play on' would be my legacy," Richie says. "I think the whole world is dying to hear someone say, 'I love you.' I think that if I can leave the legacy of love and passion in the world, then I think I've done my job in a world that's getting colder and colder by the day."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And you know who popped up on stage at the Academy of Country Music Awards last night? Lionel Richie, the same Lionel Richie who started his career in the funk band The Commodores. That's right, you know, the "Brick House" guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRICK HOUSE")

THE COMMODORES: (Singing) Aw. She's a brick house.

CORNISH: But on his new album, a country album titled "Tuskegee," artists from Tim McGraw to Darius Rucker reimagine the ballads that made Lionel Richie famous, the songs that have become slow dance staples at proms and weddings everywhere. I talked with Lionel Richie about his new record and how he became the songwriter he is.

LIONEL RICHIE: I discovered Lionel Richie in The Commodores, and it was interesting how it came out that most of them were ballads, although I must tell you the easiest way to get a song on a Commodore album, especially when five other guys are writing songs, was to bring in the slow song. So they said, Lionel, you do the slow song and the rest of us will do the funk, and I said thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY")

RICHIE: (Singing) That's why I'm easy. I'm easy like Sunday morning. Yeah.

CORNISH: Now, Tuskegee is the name of your hometown. I read that - was your childhood home actually on the campus of the school as well?

RICHIE: My home that I grew up in was right on the campus of the university. So it's quite interesting that, you know, in my growing up, I had several influences. You know, we had Gospel music on campus. R&B music was, of course, the community, and then radio was country music. And so I can kind of see where all the influences came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK ON YOU")

LIONEL RICHIE AND DARIUS RUCKER: (Singing) Stuck on you, I've been a fool too long. I guess it's time for me to come on home. Guess I'm on my way. Ooh, ooh. So hard to see...

CORNISH: You know, Darius Rucker is one of the few black artists in the country genre right now who's got, you know, a good deal of success. And I was wondering, did you ever feel that the genre was open to you as you were coming up?

RICHIE: Well, you know, it was very interesting in my world, because I grew up as a fan, and I did not know there was a thing called R&B, pop, country, classical. I just knew that I loved music. So to show you how conflicted I was in my growing up, I'm now walking across campus in the middle of the civil rights movement with a Country Joe & the Fish, Cream, Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix album under my arm. So when I finally got around to thinking about country, I never thought about it as a category. I just thought about it as great, great music.

CORNISH: Another song that's on the album...

RICHIE: Did that make sense? Did that make sense to you?

CORNISH: No, no, it made sense to me. I mean...

RICHIE: Good.

CORNISH: ...it's just one of those things where I'm listening to your catalog, and I'm hearing so much country influence anyway. And suddenly, I thought, like, what the heck? Why wasn't - why is it so hard sometimes to cross genres?

RICHIE: Well, you know what happens a lot of times, people - record companies - record companies, mainly for just marketing - you know, we have to try to divide things up so we can clearly market things. But I remember walking into a radio station and the guy said, I'm sorry, Lionel, but this record is too black. And I said, OK, well, it's number one on the R&B thing. Yes, I know. And then I came back with the next record, "Easy Like Sunday Morning," and the guy said, OK, Lionel, now, this record's perfect for pop, but it's not black enough.

So, you know, it's just one of those things where I've kind of gone against the grain throughout my entire career. And if I had to have another title for this record besides "Tuskegee," it would be called "All the Songs That They Told Me Would Ruin My Career." Every time they told me that this is not where you're supposed to be, I just went there, you know, just defying the laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, another song that - I don't know if it would fall in that category, but I think it's probably one of your best known is "Hello"...

RICHIE: Oh, my God.

CORNISH: ...which you did with Jennifer Nettles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO")

LIONEL RICHIE AND JENNIFER NETTLES: (Singing) Hello. Is it me you're looking for? Because I wonder where you are, and I wonder what you do.

RICHIE: I remember when I was writing this song, I didn't like it. It was my co-producer, James Carmichael, that continued - let me tell you how it started. He walked into the room. We were going to do a writing session, and I walked in the room, and I play, (Singing) hello, is it me you're looking for?

And he said, finish that song. And I said, wait a minute. I said, I'm just joking with you. He said, no, no, no. He said, finish that song. And I kept thinking that is the corniest phrase. It will never go. And finally, I realize now, such a common phrase, but yet at the same time, the whole world will say it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO")

RICHIE & NETTLES: (Singing) Is it me? Is it me? Hello. Is it me? Hello.

CORNISH: Now, in recent years, some of your contemporaries, like Michael Jackson and most recently Whitney Houston, have passed on. And what has that been like for you? I mean, how do you feel about the music business and surviving in it when you look at those people who leave and some say too soon?

RICHIE: Well, let me just say that this business looks like this nice little teddy bear that you get into, and it just surrounds you, and you get to be famous, and you ride across town, and people chase your car. Now, let me tell you what this really is. This is a full-grown gorilla. And it really is the toughest business in the world to survive because it gives you everything you could imagine, but it also exposes every part of your insecurities. In other words, if you're a little insecure, it will make you hugely insecure.

If you're into drugs, you're going to be into all the drugs. If you're into girls, all the girls. If you're into fame, it's going to ego you out of your mind. And in most cases, it eats you up. Between the period of '89 through '92, I just bailed out. I just stopped because it was going too fast, and I was actually losing my footing to the point where I was not comfortable flying at that speed or that altitude. And so I pulled out, just stopped everything I was doing and got out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY LOVE")

RICHIE: (Singing) I've been through so many changes in my life, woman. It's a wonder I ain't lost my mind.

CORNISH: What would you like your legacy to be?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICHIE: Let the music play on would be my legacy. I think the whole world is dying to hear someone say I love you. And, you know, I think that if I can leave the legacy of, you know, love and passion in the world, then I think I've done my job in a world that's getting colder and colder by the day.

CORNISH: Lionel Richie, thank you so much for talking with us.

RICHIE: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: Now, the song we were thinking of going out on was "Dancing on the Ceiling," but when you talked about love, I feel like I need to switch...

RICHIE: Well, "Dancing"...

CORNISH: ...out my plan.

RICHIE: Well, if you've ever been in love, "Dancing on the Ceiling" is about where you're going to be, anyway. So I...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICHIE: If you're going to have that as the closer, I think that's the best way to kind of sum up I'm in love, and I'm out of my mind, and I'm dancing on the ceiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON THE CEILING")

RICHIE: (Singing) Ooh.

CORNISH: That's singer and songwriter Lionel Richie. He spoke to us from the NPR studios in New York. His new album, a country album called "Tuskegee" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON THE CEILING")

RICHIE: (Singing) I say what is happening here? (Mm-hmm) Something is going on that's not quite clear.

GARY LEVOX: (Singing) Somebody turn on the light. Yeah. We're going to have a party. It's starting tonight.

LIONEL RICHIE AND GARY LEVOX: (Singing) Oh, what a feeling when we're dancing on the ceiling. Oh, what a feeling when we're dancing on the ceiling. The room is hot, and that's good. And that's good.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.