By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - If he hadn't known better, Lionel Richie jokes that he might have felt insulted when initially sitting down with some of today's top country stars to record his new album of duets, "Tuskegee."
"I pulled out the lyrics to the songs, and they were like, 'what's that?'
"I said, 'here are the lyrics.'" Richie says with a mock look of astonishment, then smiles. "They said, 'Oh no, man. I know this. I've been singing it since 1983 or 1987,'. Someone even said, 'I've been singing these songs since I was in elementary school.'
"I was like, 'Thank you very much, I didn't need to hear that,'" the 62-year-old told Reuters about re-recording some of his memorable songs with the likes of Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Willie Nelson and Little Big Town.
"Tuskegee," which hit record stores on Monday, features Richie and 13 country stars singing some top hits of his heyday in the 1980s, including "Hello," "Stuck On You" and "All Night Long."
Going country may seem out of place for the pop and R&B singer who gained stardom in the 1970s with the funk and soul group The Commodores, perfecting his brand of romantic ballads then embarking on a major solo career.
But the Alabama native is no stranger to country music, and several of his mega hits have been covered with a twang. The late Conway Twitty recorded Richie's "Three Times a Lady" and Kenny Rogers scored a hit with the Richie-penned "Lady."
"I've always felt right at home in country because I was raised just down the road from Nashville in Tuskegee, Alabama, where I was immersed in country, R&B, gospel and classical music," Richie said.
He said recording his old favorites with country stars proved to be a surreal experience as he came to realize how many artists knew, and liked, his music. Some of those singers offered reinterpretations of his songs and many pushed him hard to perform at his peak level in the studio, Richie said.
"Jennifer Nettles (of Sugarland) came in and it took me a minute to wrap my head around what she wanted to do with 'Hello.' I was like, 'Oh, I hold that note that long?' And Billy Currington can go high with his voice, and you'd never know that. He did 'Just for You' and he just nailed it."
Richie also chuckled at the memory of Darius Rucker announcing in the studio that he would sing Richie's part on "Stuck on You."
"He told me, 'I'm doing your part and anything that goes up high you have it.'" Richie said. "Those were my orders."
SURPRISES AND CHALLENGES
A few people surprised him with their song choices. Instead of choosing "All Night Long," as Richie anticipated, Kenny Chesney picked "My Love" which he said was his favorite.
Tim McGraw wanted to perform "Sail On," another choice that surprised Richie, though not after he sang it. "That caught me off guard," Richie said. "But he was dead on the money with it."
Perhaps his biggest challenge was a duet with Shania Twain on "Endless Love." It was the first time Twain had been in the recording studio since her long hiatus to deal with a crumbling marriage and voice condition. Richie became aware that she had lost her confidence as well.
Twain did not want to record in Nashville and rejected several locations Richie suggested. They finally settled on the studio at his beach house in the Bahamas. He was surprised to learn that a television crew from Oprah Winfrey's cable channel, OWN, would film the session for a reality TV series, "Why Not?"
When Twain arrived, Richie asked her out of sight of the cameras when was the last time she had been on stage. She told him it had been seven years.
"I told her we both had something in common: We were both scared," Richie recalled. "I told her we're artists and all artists are egotistical maniacs with an inferiority complex. When we walk off stage, we're always in doubt if we can walk back in front of a mic and sing again.
"Then I told her, 'When you walk back in front of that microphone, you'll turn back into Shania Twain.'
Along with the album's release, Richie will appear on the April 1 Academy of Country Music Awards TV show, and he further explores his country side in a CBS special, "ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends In Concert," set to air on April 13.
The special, which was pre-taped, features appearances by Jason Aldean, The Band Perry, Luke Bryan, Sara Evans, Lady Antebellum and others. Richie called it "a night that I will remember for the rest of my life."
"The ultimate compliment here is that you have these people telling you that something you wrote is their favorite song. And then they want to sing it with me? Come on, I mean, at a certain point you have to stop and realize your blessings," he said.
(Reporting by Vernell Hackett; Editing By Andrew Stern and Bob Tourtellotte)