Songs, not formats, mattered for versatile, varied Richie

Lionel Richie names some of the albums he used to tote across the campus of the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Sly & The Family Stone. Cream. Marvin Gaye. And, he remembers after a moment's pause, Country Joe and the Fish. "And this is in the middle of the civil rights movement," he says with a chuckle.

"It was about music, it wasn't about color or anything like that," he says. "If the expression of music hit you, that's what you went for."

Format divisions never meant much for the 62-year-old singer-songwriter, who teams up for duets with country stars on his new "Tuskegee" album and in Monday's "Lionel Richie and Friends" concert at the MGM Grand Garden.

The event capitalizes on the chance to use both the TV production crew and the A-list country stars who will still be in town after today's Academy of Country Music awards.

"It was probably the perfect storm," says Richie, who noted that the three weeks needed to actually record the album stretched to more than 10 months of scheduling the sessions.

"Finally to get them to show up in one place is probably the coup of my life," he says. "I'm so happy they all stayed around. That's perfect."

CBS will air the concert April 13. It will reprise some of the duets from the album, including "Say You Say Me" with Jason Aldean, "My Love" with Kenny Chesney, "Sail On" with Tim McGraw and "Lady" with Kenny Rogers.

But it will also have Richie tunes performed by country stars who aren't on the album, including The Band Perry doing "Penny Lover," Luke Bryan covering "Running with the Night" and Lady Antebellum tackling "Truly."

Pop and rock veterans from Kid Rock to Bon Jovi have made a run at the country format. But Richie repeats in this phone chat what he's been telling most interviewers: "I'm not going country, I've been country my whole life.

"The whole point is I left country to go out into the big world. The songs have already gone country. I'm just kind of showing up and standing next to the songs for a minute."

The earliest days of The Commodores found the group playing redneck bars and fraternity houses that Richie compares to "Animal House."

But then the group would turn around "and do 'Wichita Lineman' at an all-black club in Montgomery, Ala.," he adds with a laugh. "We got it from both ends. Why did we do that? The answer was, it was a great-ass song."

When the group went on to fame and fortune, Richie became known as its balladeer, while bandmates penned the more dance-oriented tunes such as "Brick House."

"When I started writing, I didn't know that I was in the wrong category to go after Elton John and Billy Joel and the Beatles and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder all in the same pot," he says.

"But it's funny, now that I look back I go, 'What the hell was I thinking?' But I wasn't, so that's the good news."

Richie could have patched the "Tuskegee" album together more quickly by shipping parts back and forth electronically, but he wanted it done live with a live band.

"The believability of it is to get (the guest stars) to feel comfortable with the songs, as opposed to making it a Lionel Richie record," he says. In some cases, he wasn't even sure where there would be room for him to join in.

"With Blake Shelton the joke was, 'Do you have a volume knob on you somewhere, Blake?' "

The country stars all have great voices and were "not kidding around, my brother. They are there to kill. I gave them license to blow it away. I put the arrangement around them, made it comfortable for them, then I'll get on there any way I can."

Richie has performed in Las Vegas outside his regular concert touring, making him seem a logical candidate for a custom show he could perform two or three times a year, as Rod Stewart and Elton John do now.

"Residency is probably right around the corner somewhere, but not quite yet," he says. "I'm gonna do probably two more world tours and get good and tired, as we say.

"There's something special about traveling the world," he adds. "By the time you get home, you know just what to write next. But as far as just completely staying in one place to finish everything up, Vegas is a spot where I would come in (and) do the album during the day while I'm performing at night."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at or 702-383-0288.