Tuskegee

I was all set to blog about another album tonight that resurfaced today, but I find that I lack the brain power to actually blog about it.  Is it just me or has “lack of brain power” been a recurring theme this week?  It sure as hell seems like it to me.

But really, this week has kind of been all about Lionel Richie.  I have been listening to a his new album, Tuskegee, a whole damn lot.  Believe me, no one is more surprised by that admission than I am.  I can’t remember the last time I liked a Lionel Richie song.  Actually, strike that – I can.  It was probably 1987.  It was “Love Will Conquer All” which was on his Dancing On The Ceiling album.  I probably even have the Dancing On The Ceiling LP in a box somewhere in my closet.  But his career since then has been light on the hits and heavy on the misses.  He’s had a bit of a messy personal life and well, his style of music really didn’t survive 90s grunge very well.  Attempts to update his sound to fit the times were awkward at best and downright embarrassing at worst.

I figured that poor Lionel was settling into the part of every artist’s career during which they just repackage the hits over and over again on different best-of collections and new material slows to a trickle.  And with Tuskegee, he kind of does that.  But he doesn’t.  It’s complicated, but what he did was record new versions of many of his best known hits – both solo and with The Commodores – with some of today’s hottest country artists.  They got countrifed new arrangements but are still recognizable to people like me that remember the first time they were popular.  I was skeptical and not sure how well this would work, but then I remembered that Kenny Rogers recorded “Lady” which Richie had written for him.  Not surprisingly, Kenny Rogers is Lionel’s duet partner for the Tuskegee version of “Lady.”

At first, I didn’t think I needed the whole album.  The track that really caught my attention was “You Are” which I’m not ashamed to say is one of my favorite Lionel Richie songs.  He duets with Blake Shelton on it and the song is just so damn pleasant that you really can’t help but feel good when you’re listening to it.  The arrangement of the song doesn’t change terribly, other than the presence of fewer synths and more steel guitars.  So I bought that track and “Lady” and figured that was enough.  But the more I listened to the samples, the more I found that I was liking how it sounded.  It led to a spontaneous purchase of the rest of the album via eMusic, a site from which the purchase of any album always makes you feel like you’re practically stealing the music even though you aren’t.

I’ve been listening to more Lionel Richie this week than I have in the last 25 years combined.  Much like Anne Murray’s last album of duets with other women, the album benefits tremendously from the familiarity of these songs.  Even in these new arrangements, these songs are like old friends to me.  My mom really instilled the love of pop music in me and I certainly knew a lot of Commodores and Lionel Richie songs growing up.  Listening to these songs evokes in me the nostalgia I’m sure it was meant to in folks my age.  A lot of these songs were staples of soft rock radio which is where I learned to really love and embrace the cheese, so it’s not surprising that many of these songs make me smile when I listen to them.

One thing I kind of wish he had done was include more old-guard country artists.  Save Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson, pretty much all of the country artists featured on Tuskegee are from the last 10 years.  The “old-guard” on this album are artists like Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney.  What I wouldn’t have given for a Reba McEntire or Trisha Yearwood or even a Garth Brooks duet.  But I’m sure this was a calculated move on Richie’s part as well.  Figuring he already had sappy old almost-fortysomethings like me because of the song selection, he also figured that he could draw in the younger country audience by his choices of duet partners.  Clearly this strategy paid off as he topped the Billboard Country album charts and came in #2 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart behind MDNA.  When was the last time I bought both the #1 and #2 albums on the Billboard album chart?  I can’t even remember.

And really, Lionel deserves this success, if for no other reason than he managed to make “Dancing on the Ceiling” listenable.  Who knew that all it needed was Rascal Flatts?  The only demerits I would give it it is that he included Jimmy Buffett (ugh) on a duet version of “All Night Long” – I would have rather heard Dolly on that one and that he did NOT include “Running With The Night” or “Brick House.”

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