Lionel Richie’s new release, Tuskegee, might come as a surprise to the casual observer, one who believes that the former Commodore, the man who once proclaimed that he couldn’t slow down, who extolled the virtues of being easy, who was once tagged as the black Barry Manilow, has gone country.
Of course, he hasn’t really gone anywhere.
(Mercury; US: 26 Mar 2012)
Learn to Live
(Capitol; US: 16 Sep 2008)
It’s appropriate that the album is named after the 60-something singer’s hometown. Although not specifically a hotbed for country music, Tuskegee is a small, southern, and undeniably historically important town. It’s not just the birthplace of Rosa Parks, African American novelist Nella Larsen, and Richie, it’s also the home of the famed Tuskegee Airman and the shameful Tuskegee syphilis experiment––in which poor, rural black men believed they were receiving treatment for the disease but were instead being studied as the illness slowly eroded their health and dignity.
Richie’s not the first black artist to dabble in country music, and he’s not exactly new to Nashville. In recent years Hootie & The Blowfish vocalist Darius Rucker’s sudden conversion to the art of twang caused journalists to cluck and scratch, and then provide us with a history lesson. Charley Pride and Ray Charles had been down that dusty road before––and, if one listens to Hootie’s blow out debut, 1994’s Cracked Rear View, it’s evident that Rucker always had country in his soul. It wasn’t just in the rich timbre of his voice or the fact that the band had cribbed the album title from a line in the John Hiatt song “Learning How to Love You”, but in the way the guitars jangled, the way the ballad “Let Her Cry” (which has untapped potential as a country hit) walked the fine line between tender and macho, and the way “Only Wanna Be With You” wore a big smile that hid its melancholy.
Country even reared its head on the group’s 1996 follow-up Fairweather Johnson via “Earth Stopped Cold At Dawn”, “She Crawls Away”, and “Fool”. But both albums are mixed bags, at best––the sound of a really good bar band that got lucky. Rucker was no great lyricist, and the band might have had more staying power with a few doctors in the house, but those country tinges were a harbinger of things to come. By 1998 the band had improved, although most of its audience had gone the way of The 1910 Fruitgum Company. Yet “One By One” and “Las Vegas Nights” from Musical Chairs were unapologetic in their affection for dirt road classics. More importantly, they were honest and convincing.
Perhaps because no record company executive could yet imagine Rucker as a country star, he released an ill-fated R&B album, Back to Then in 2002. On it, the singer frequently sounded out of place, as though traveling farther from his roots than he should have. Word of his break into the country market, around the time of his 2008 solo release Learn to Live, seemed either like the set up or punch line to an elaborate but fairly laughless joke, but it wasn’t.
It was actually a brave step, and one that had more than a little commercial payoff. Not only did Rucker reinvent himself artistically, he also found major chart success––again. Three of the tracks reached the top of the country charts. Producer Frank Rogers (Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley) co-wrote a majority of the material, refining some of Rucker’s skills and shaping the record into something that could only be a hit. It was. The single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” became, in 2008, the first Number One single by an African American artist since Charley Pride topped the charts in 1983.
Rucker’s 2010 sophomore release, Charleston, SC 1966 (named after the place and year of his birth), also featured chart topping singles and co-writes with Brad Paisley, Radney Foster, and returning producer Rogers. A third country album is forthcoming and, judging by his turn with Richie on the track “Stuck On You” from Tuskegee, his country career may very well be just beginning.
The same cannot be said for Richie.
He first tasted country chart success in 1980, while still a member of the Commodores, when he wrote and produced “Lady” for Kenny Rodgers. The song quickly became a hit on the country, pop, and adult contemporary charts. Richie also produced Rodgers’ highly successful Share Your Love album in 1981. That pairing was perhaps not much of a surprise, either––Rodgers had made his name with The First Edition, a pop group, and many of his major hits––“Lucille”, “Islands In The Stream”, “We’ve Got Tonight” (which paired him with Sheena Easton)––were country mostly by association.
Conway Twitty had chart success with his version of “Three Times a Lady”, a tune that had been a hit for the Commodores, and was further proof of its author’s broad appeal. Richie tried his luck again with the band Alabama in 1987 on the track “Deep River Woman”, but it didn’t ignite the way others had. In fact, Richie lost his commercial footing in the coming years and his domestic sales sank ever lower while he became nearly invisible to the audiences that had once so enthusiastically embraced him.
After a return to R&B and even stepping into the hip-hop world for 2009’s Just Go, it’s hard to know whether Richie’s just playing musical chameleon or if he intends to turn to country music full stop. The odds on the latter move seem unlikely, if for no other reason than Tuskegee isn’t really a country album––it’s just marketed that way. It’s true that it was recorded in Nashville, that Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean all appear beside Rucker, Rodgers, Jimmy Buffett, and Willie Nelson, that it shares production qualities with some songs on country radio, and that the packaging makes the artist appear rustic.
But it’s little more than a greatest hits collection with some country artists along for the ride. In the end there’s not much that distinguishes the new recording of “My Love” from the original and especially not the new “Lady” from its predecessor––aside from Rodgers’ voice being wearier than it was more than 30 years ago. To Richie’s credit, none of the 13 tracks is worse than it was in its original form––even Jimmy Buffett fails to embarrass on “All Night Long” and “Dancing On the Ceiling” has aged better than you might expect.
Many of the lyrics are stronger than you might remember, too––at his best, Richie is a lyrical master who avoids obvious rhyme and obvious sentiment, and who constructs melodies that are both surprising and elegant. (Witness “Sail On” and “You Are”.) The real challenge would have been for the album to have been constructed with classic country tunes (“Crazy”, “Walking the Floor Over You”) or unexpected covers––Hootie’s “Let Her Cry”, for instance.
Sadly, Tuskegee––and, by extension all those involved with it––doesn’t reveal anything; it’s predictable even if it highlights the gifts of its creator. It could have been a door opener, allowing for more black artists to enter the genre, instead it just reaffirms that “Endless Love”, “Hello”, and “Stuck On You” were hits for a good reason and that their author really plays it as safe as critics would have you believe.
Perhaps, then, it’s up to Rucker to lead the charge for black artists in contemporary country. Given his track record, his immense affability, and willingness to take risks, even calculated ones, he seems like the best man for the task.