Music

Black Country Communion: Darius Rucker and Lionel Richie

Despite country's southern roots, there remains a dearth of black artists. Darius Rucker dipped his toes in those muddy waters in the past, but alas, Lionel Richie's new country album doesn't wade in much deeper.


Lionel Richie

Tuskegee

Label: Mercury
US Release Date: 2012-03-26
Amazon
iTunes

Darius Rucker

Learn to Live

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2008-09-16
Amazon
iTunes

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.

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.