Veteran singer-songwriter Lionel Richie, who has sold 23 million albums in the U.S. during a four-decade career, is again at the top of the charts with Tuskegee, an album of duets with such country stars of today as Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, and Shania Twain. In an e-mail exchange, Bloomberg Businessweek asked him about his genre-crossing experience and today’s music business.
BW: Leading up to making Tuskegee, how much influence has country had on your song writing?
Richie: I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama. So this album is me coming home. I discovered being a songwriter in Tuskegee. My titles Sail On and Easy, they’re all from growing up. It’s not a complicated life down there. It’s really quite basic. You’re happy, you’re sad, you’re glad, you party. That’s basic living.
When I was growing up, music was music and there were no genres. We didn’t look at it as country music. Popular music in Tuskegee was country music. So I didn’t know it in categories. It was the radio.
My earliest memories of country music are the Grand Ole Opry. We didn’t have 475 channels back then; we only had three. You either watched country, national news, or local. That’s it. We watched the Opry every weekend. Did we know about Buck Owens and Charley Pride? Yep, sure did. Then the next generation came along, which was Mac Davis and Glen Campbell, and of course Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were the kings. There were so many great songwriters that influenced me.
Why a duets album? What was the rationale for the project?
I always like to challenge myself. I never want to be put into a box. One day we were sitting around talking about where to go next and talking especially about where the songs have been. We discovered that, believe it or not, the songs [I had written] stuck in country for some good reason, and it’s been there all the time. So we put a feel out to see if we did a country album, who would come to the table, and all of country came to the table! I discovered that every country star basically knew one or more of my songs.
Did you ever consider the business attractiveness of crossing genres, especially toward country?
Believe me, I love commerce as much as the rest of the readers of Businessweek. But in art, you have to be true to yourself and your musical vision. People have known me well for a long time, so if I was chasing a trend and doing something that wasn’t authentic to who I am, they would know it in just a few seconds. That said, I have always tried to stay ahead of the curve while always keeping in mind what music lovers want. Throughout my career, I’ve been told that I wasn’t making the music the audience wanted to hear. In other words, I would go to an R&B convention with a song called Easy Like Sunday Morning, and they’d say, “The brother’s got to be crazy.”
Then I would go back to the disk jockeys and say, “O.K., let me explain something to you. If Mozart were black, would he be Mozart? No. Because you wouldn’t have played him. So I’m not writing R&B music; I’m writing a gift that came through me that obviously makes sense because it’s working.” By the time I got to All Night Long, it was just, “That’s Lionel.” It was expected that I would go left or right and certainly not down the center. I guess that’s because I didn’t understand the categories and refused to fall in one.
How do you think about genre these days, and how does that compare with when you first broke into the music industry?
Years ago, you had many different program directors who worked various radio stations and they were specific in their fields or genre or types of music. You had the R&B programs, Country PD’s [programming directors at radio stations], etc. And you built relationships within those genres of music and those people. Today, everything has turned into a conglomerate and there are one or two PDs programming all the stations in specific territories. Playlists seem smaller these days, so fewer songs are given the chance to be heard and it’s become more difficult for older artists to be played on radio. That said, it still boils down to one-on-one relationships in the industry and the quality of the song. You still have to win over listeners one at a time.
What lessons can other artists—or even the broader music industry—learn from your success?
I always tell young artists, remember one day you will be 40, 50, and 60 years old. As you get older in this industry, put Mr. in front of your name. If it doesn’t flow, then you’re in trouble. You never want to just be a fad, because one day you will mature and get older and so will your original fan base. You hope that your name and your good music will grow older with them. Yes, you want to evolve, but you always evolve with maturity, class, and integrity.
The most important concept you have to understand is simplicity. You can write a hard song any day of the week: Just throw in a bunch of notes and say as many words as you can think of. But Stuck On You, Easy, Still,—I mean, simplicity. What year does that song sound like it might have been written? Pick a year. What wedding did it work for? Every wedding. What religion did it work for? Every religion. The reason people know these songs so well is because they are very basic, one-on-one feelings and emotions.
Would you like to record another album of country duets, or would you ever consider writing new material for a country album? Is there another genre that interests you?
Absolutely, doing this duets album with country artists brought me full circle. I am home at country, so I certainly could see me doing another country album, maybe this time with new country originals. But I am open to working with artists from all genres from around the world. Even when we go home, we often branch out in life to still adventure on what’s out there. I would love to do something with Coldplay, Train, and believe or not, people like Swedish House Mafia. The possibilities are endless.