While the concept of country artists paying tribute to Lionel Richie sounds like a gimmick, Tuskegee (Mercury Nashville) — on which Richie sings his biggest hits with everyone from Kenny Rogers to Kenny Chesney — truly works. Richie often cedes the lead: Rascal Flatts spins "Dancing on the Ceiling" as a country-pop party, Jennifer Nettles guests on a soulful "Hello" and Shania Twain steps in for Diana Ross on the schmaltzy-as-ever "Endless Love." For the most part, Tuskegee's versions are fairly faithful to the originals, with a lot less synth and a little more steel guitar. (Or, in the case of Jimmy Buffett's "All Night Long," more steel drums.)
Richie's foray into country makes sense, and not just because he wrote and produced "Lady" for Rogers while he was still in the Commodores or because he crossed over a couple of times. Like much of what works on country radio today, Richie's hits were aimed at adults. Long before every pop confection seemed fine-tuned for the palate of a 12-year-old, Richie's second solo album, 1983's Can't Slow Down, was huge. Five of its eight tracks landed in the Top 10 on Billboard's pop, R&B and adult-contemporary charts, with "All Night Long (All Night)" becoming Richie's biggest dance hit and "Stuck on You" his first country single. By most industry metrics, Can't Slow Down whupped the competition; it won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1985 (despite its release date), besting Born in the U.S.A., Purple Rain, She's So Unusual and Private Dancer — and outselling all but the Boss.
The knock against Richie, now and then, wasn't just that he made music for the middle aged — so did Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner, and critics swooned over them. The trouble is that Richie wrote songs that made moms and dads slow-dance in public, and no one wants to see that. But strip away the '80s dross, and Can't Slow Down endures for the right reasons: memorable melodies and sincere lyrics. You can dis the multi-culti carousing of "All Night Long" and Steve Lukather's guitar solos, you can scoff at the sentimentality of "Hello" or the sanitized lust of "Running with the Night," but if you've been around long enough to love and lose, you can't deny the humanity beneath the machinery.