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Every year, the night after the Academy of Country Music Awards CBS takes advantage of having the talent still in town and tapes a themed special that will air a few weeks later.
This year, it was the turn of country’s new goodwill ambassador, Lionel Richie. As you know, last week the R&B/pop superstar released “Tuskegee.” Named after his hometown, the album is a collection of his greatest hits performed by Richie with current and veteran country acts.
The album, which was originally projected to sell less 50,000 copies in its opening week, according to sources, blew out the door and will move around 190,000 copies: enough to land at No. 1 on Wednesday’s Billboard Country Albums chart and at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, right behind Madonna’s “MDNA.” It will be Richie’s highest debuting album in 24 years.
The evening was billed “Lionel Richie And Friends,” and he certainly brought his pals. Many artists who appear on “Tuskegee” joined Richie on stage to recreate their songs from the album or, often Richie played the tune solo, such as opening the evening with a rousing “All Night Long,” which got the crowd on its feet.
The guest of honor set the tone for the night: even if you’re not a fan of his music, he has handled this resurgence with a joy, graciousness and bonhomie that make it impossible not to root for him. Plus, many of his songs are such straight down-the-middle, mainstream pop that the country acts had no trouble either leaving them as is or putting their own country spin on things in a way that never felt forced.
Richie and Tim McGraw delivered a mighty version of “Sail On” that far surpassed McGraw’s fairly tepid delivery on “Tuskegee,” although their voices are in the same range so they tended to disappear into each other. The same can’t be said for Richie and Darius Rucker, whose rich harmonies on “Stuck On You” were so tight and intertwined it was as if they were siblings.
To be fair, there were some tricky moments. Recording a duet with Richie on a love song in the studio is one thing, but it often proved a little endearingly awkward when Richie and another male would duet on a love song live as if they were a little unsure when they should sing romantic lyrics to each other or when they should look out into the crowd. In some cases, Richie just switched it up: for example as he sang “My Love” with Kenny Chesney, Richie altered the line “you’ve been my friend and you’ve been my lover” to “you’ve been my friend and you’ve been”—with a good pause for comedic effect and looking right at Chesney— “my friend... “ You can’t blame Richie for then really going to town when he got the chance to perform “Hello” with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles. Her over-sized belting threatened to completely drown him out, but the performance together was solid gold as they stared into each other’s eyes.
In some cases, stars not on “Tuskegee” shared their interpretation: Though they had little personal chemistry, Marc Anthony and Sara Evans’ soared together vocally on “Endless Love,” taking over vocal chores from Richie and Shania Twain, who perform it together on the record.
Richie has already said he’d like to record a second volume, and as the taping showed, there’s a cadre of country stars ready, willing and able. Martina McBride delivered a stirring version of “Still,” ending the heartbreaker on a whispered, quiet note. Luke Bryan, who prefaced his performance with an anecdote about how he and his wife, while in college, used to grab some White Zinfandel, park and listen to “Running With the Night.” His energetic version of the tune was one of the evening’s highlights, as the live wire danced to the edge of the stage so he could get closer to Richie, who was seated in the front row. Similarly, Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum was so excited to be in Richie’s presence that he muffed his introduction, but he and Hillary Scott recovered sufficiently to swirl their harmonies around “Truly.” The Band Perry then delivered a country-tinged, guitar-driven version of “Penny Lover.”
Big & Rich closed the show with a horn-blowing, funky, stomping “Brickhouse.” While they did a fine job, it’s clear the song is not as easy to sing as Richie, whose voice has been undiminished by passing time makes it out to be. And for reasons unclear, the duo inserted two lines of their biggest hit, “Save A Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” into the tune— a needless, minor stealing of Richie’s thunder. No matter, however. The energy of the song and Big Kenny’s spirited delivery had everyone on their feet. They were joined by Richie, who closed the show the way he began it: on stage, singing his heart out, with a smile on his face that they could see all the way to Tuskegee.
“Lionel Richie And Friends” will air April 13 on CBS.
Below is a complete rundown of performers and songs. The order may change by air date.
“All Night Long,” Lionel Richie
“Still,” Martina McBride
“Running With The Night,” Luke Bryan
“Truly,” Lady Antebellum
“Penny Lover,” The Band Perry
“Say You, Say Me,” Jason Aldean
“Sail On,” Lionel Richie and Tim McGraw
“My Love,” Lionel Richie and Kenny Chesney
“Hello,” Lionel Richie and Jennifer Nettles
“Dancing on the Ceiling,” Lionel Richie and Rascal Flatts
“Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
“Lady,” Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers
“Endless Love,” Marc Anthony and Sara Evans
“Easy,” Lionel Richie
“Climbing,” Lionel Richie and Nicole Richie
“Three Times a Lady,” Lionel Richie
“Brickhouse,” Lionel Richie and Big & Rich