Lionel Richie Goes Barely Country for ‘Tuskegee’

Only Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles cuts through the smooth-pop clutter in their duet on “Hello”

If it’s possible for an album to be justified by just one song, then Lionel Richie’s country duets project, “Tuskegee,” earns its keep just through the inclusion of a collaboration with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles that makes something riveting out of, of all things, “Hello.”

A song that once seemed emotionally innocuous enough becomes an exercise in deep and primal yearning as, a minute and a half in, the drums kick it up a notch and Nettles loudly enters the picture, sounding almost feral in her loneliness and desire.

So maybe it’s a good thing the Sugarland vocalist was one of two duet partners who didn’t actually record in the studio with Richie. She sounds like she might have eaten him alive.

Nothing else on “Tuskegee” reaches that level of revelation or suggests that Richie’s catalog is due for some kind of radical critical reevaluation. The opening track, “You Are,” sounded like a perfectly pleasant advertising jingle when it was a top 10 hit in 1983, and that’s exactly what it sounds like 29 years later, notwithstanding the addition of “Voice” host Blake Shelton, as the Conway Twitty to Lionel’s Loretta, as it were.

If you haven’t listened to much contemporary country, you probably have a stereotype about what a Lionel-Richie-goes-country album would sound like. You might imagine that it involves throwing in a lot of loud steel guitar and fiddle. And that would be so wrong. Because it really involves throwing in a lot of soft, nearly subliminal steel, and switching most of the synth parts to acoustic guitars. Genre switch accomplished!

Only Rascal Flatts really “country it up,” which is ironic, given the flack they’ve taken over the years for basically being a pop group in country clothing. But, perhaps in prescient honor of their current radio hit, “Banjo,” the trio rearranged “Dancing on the Ceiling” to sport some very prominent fiddle and banjo parts.

In the end, the song becomes a rocker, but still … Rascal Flatts, the new standard bearers for traditional country instrumentation? Who knew?

Some of the songs are just too slight for a guest to muster up any personality in the allotted three or four minutes. That definitely goes for superstar Kenny Chesney, who just disappears into the utter mildness of “My Love,” despite the fact that he handpicked that song as a personal favorite, brought his own band along to play on it, and co-produced the track. There must be something he’s seeing in it that we aren’t.

Similarly, Tim McGraw barely registers as a presence on “Sail On,” which barely registers as anything besides aural wallpaper. Jason Aldean fares a little better on “Say You, Say Me,” partly because the tune has been slightly rearranged with a more powerful bridge designed to emphasize his rocker side. Darius Rucker proves a highly suitable harmony partner on “Stuck on You,” even if the tune itself doesn’t have as much sticking power in 2012.

As standouts go, Little Big Town’s four-part harmonies (or is it five-part, with Richie?) go a long way toward making “Deep River Woman” the 1972 Eagles track it was always meant to be. Hitting the comeback trail, Shania Twain proves a reasonable enough ringer for Miss Ross on “Endless Love.”

And Willie Nelson’s bittersweet tones provide the perfect complement for “Easy,” which — it’s easy to forget — is a breakup song, and one of the few in Richie’s catalog of smashes that has a slightly rough, cavalier attitude for an undercurrent. Nelson even brings along his harmonica player as well as turning in a trademark acoustic guitar solo, and you kind of want to hear Willie go it alone. It’d be a terrific addition to his own set.

Then the album ends with an “All Night Long” so faithful to the original that the addition of Jimmy Buffett seems superfluous, even with the addition of steel drums to make it Hawaiian-shirt-friendly. “All Night Long” always seemed like the kind of song that appeals mainly to people who’d never stayed up all night in their lives, so it makes for an effectively genial sleeping pill at the close of “Tuskegee.”

If only Richie had recorded some actual country material, instead of making the Music Row mountain come to him. Even some mashups would have worked; think Lionel and Kris on "Easy Like Sunday Morning Comin' Down."

The whole project seemed like it might have turned out to be an expensive folly, given the unlikelihood in this day and age of a crossover album ever recouping its costs, when said expenses involved luxuries like flying the entire production team to the Bahamas to record Twain's vocal. But maybe it wasn't such a big gamble after all. A Home Shopping Network appearance by Richie resulted in an instantaneous 20,000 sales, and pre-sales charts show "Tuskegee" possibly besting Madonna's "MDNA."

So maybe we'll see Madge visiting Music Row and booking a session with Blake. Hearing Shelton duet with her on "Justify My Love" would definitely justify that project.