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Behind the scenes of Lionel Richie’s career-reviving ‘Tuskegee’

Jeremy Roberts

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, North Carolina Music Hall of Fame inductee Tony Brown and Punkin, his pride and joy Jack Russell Terrier, familiarize themselves with the sights and sounds of a sunny Nashville afternoon, summer 2020. Image Credit: Tony Brown Enterprises

“It ain’t easy being easy, but Tony’s sense of humor makes it easy.” Lionel Richie’s 2012 comeback was Tuskegee, accommodating 13 of the erstwhile Commodore’s greatest hits reimagined as country music duets. Hotshot Nashville producer Tony Brown commands an exclusive interview about the album that bagged Richie an American Idol hosting gig and sold over a million copies in the USA, exceeding anything since 1986’s Dancing on the Ceiling.

The Tony Brown Interview, Part Seven

What was your mindset when you were tasked with recutting eight of Lionel Richie’s greatest hits as duets [“with today’s hottest country artists and legends” according to the Mercury Records hype sticker]? Producers Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney, Dann Huff, and Nathan Chapman toed the line on the remaining five selections.

I was a little intimidated when Lionel asked me to collaborate on Tuskegee [so named because Richie was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on June 20, 1949]. Those feelings subsided once we stepped into the studio. Before we cut a master, we listened to Lionel’s original records like “Stuck on You” and “Sail On.” There’s certain licks you have to include in the redo because it’s part of the song’s DNA. Say you decided to reimagine the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” [No. 1 POP, 1979]. You’ve gotta play that Michael McDonald piano lick to make it sound right. It’s an exciting challenge trying to make something as good as an original, especially if you’re in tandem with the artist that did it first.

“Lady” [No. 1 C&W, written and produced for Kenny Rogers, 1980], “Stuck on You” [No. 24 C&W, Can’t Slow Down, 1983], and “Deep River Woman” [No. 10 C&W, Dancing on the Ceiling] were actually great crossover country songs for Lionel in the ’80s, so the idea of him undertaking a full-blown Nashville project wasn’t that far-fetched [All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine elucidates, “No matter how many fiddles and steel guitars are added — and there are never too many — the songs on Tuskegee are never so altered as to be unrecognizable, the melodies are always proudly prominent, and there isn’t a speck of dirt to be found anywhere…even if the production has changed — it’s not as glossy as the ’80s, there are fewer keyboards and more…


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