Lionel Richie's birthplace is Tuskegee, Alabama so for his 2012 country duets album, Tuskegee, he is trumpeted as the country boy returning to his roots. And there's something to that: as a songwriter, Richie has had success on the country charts, scoring big with Kenny Rogers of "Lady," one of many Lionel covers Kenny sang over the years. Rogers' enthusiastic embrace of Richie is an indication that the former Commodore's definition of country isn’t quite down-home, and Tuskegee proves that assumption true, with each of Lionel's partners coming from the pop side of Nashville. A few perennials crop up -- Kenny comes in for a revival of "Lady," Willie Nelson stops by to lay some guitar and vocals on "Easy" -- but the point of the album is as much to have current stars pay tribute to Richie as it is to ease him onto country-pop airwaves. Tuskegee winds up being fairly successful in this regard. No matter how many fiddles and steel guitars are added -- and there are never too many -- the songs 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, so it's suited for any clean crossover occasion. Apart from Pixie Lott -- a singer who has absolutely nothing to do with country -- popping up on the international version of the album and maybe the revival of the recent "Just for You," there are no surprises on Tuskegee; even the partners match up correctly, with Jimmy Buffett adding good times to "All Night Long," Shania Twain playing the Diana Ross role on "Endless Love," Rascal Flatts forcefully pumping out the good cheer on "Dancing on the Ceiling," Blake Shelton smiling along on "You Are." Even if the production has changed -- it’s not as glossy as the '80s, there are fewer keyboards and more guitars-the sensibility remains the same, so Tuskegee generates a bit of déjà vu: the surroundings are new, yet everything feels familiar. Whether that’s a comfortable bit of nostalgia or just a shade too predictable depends entirely on the tastes of the listener.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine