Richie a country guy at heart

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Say you, say me, say it together … maybe not so naturally?

Yes, funk-R&B-pop balladeer Lionel Richie has "gone country" on his latest collection, Tuskegee, which finds him hooking up with Nashville stars, including Canadian Shania Twain, in country duet makeovers of his greatest hits as a solo artist and with The Commodores.

But Richie — who was born in Tuskegee, Ala., 62 years ago — maintains it was actually more of a stretch for him to "get down" when he first started in The Commodores in 1968.

"Lionel Richie is not GOING country, I’ve always been country, I lived in the country," Richie says.

"It was a stretch for me to go pop. It was a stretch for me to be an R&B singer. I’m not a soul singer. I’m a storyteller. And so my days with The Commodores, I went after anything I heard on the radio — Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash. Conway Twitty recorded Three Times a Lady a year after it was a hit. Kenny Rodgers recorded Lady, 22 million copies later. I’ve been a maybe of the Country Music Association now since ’82. It’s just that no one knew that. I didn’t go country, but all my songs did."

Richie recently managed to sell over 20,000 copies of Tuskegee during an hour-long appearance on the Home Shopping Network in St. Petersberg, Fla. Still to come, he’s taping a two-hour TV special, Lionel Richie and Friends, at the MGM Grand that’s scheduled to air April 13 on CBS — but without Twain who was the toughest "get" on an album that features Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, among others.

Twain, who is featured on Tuskegee’s first single, Endless Love, was struggling with her voice at the time and Richie had to go to her in the Bahamas to record the duet.

When he got there, he found out she was doing a whole TV show, Why Not? with Shania Twain, about the vocals issue that subsequently aired on OWN.

"I didn’t realize the seriousness of it," Richie recalls. "It wasn’t until I got down to the Bahamas that I realized, ‘Wait a minute. This is a television show?’ And that’s when I realized, ‘Holy crap, what am I doing here?’ And the first note out of her mouth EVER in seven years is the first note on Endless Love. Now we have to figure out how to get her on stage and feel great about singing again and that’s a tougher task."

Richie and Nettles are also part of a new summer TV show on ABC called Duets that will feature them, Kelly Clarkson and Robin Thicke scouring the U.S looking for duet partners.

Hello poster makes Richie laugh

It turns out Lionel Richie has a sense of humour about himself.

For example, he laughs at a recent street flyer campaign in cities around the world with a picture of himself in full ‘80s afro mode and the title Hello? above it, and below: Is it me you’re looking for?

The song’s entire lyrics on featured on tearaway strips.

“I know about this,” said Richie, with a laugh, when shown a copy by QMI Agency.

 “It was sent to me from every corner of the world. This picture is in Delhi on a post. This picture is on college dorms. This was viral maybe about a year ago and then it’s just never gone away. It’s in every country. And I kept thinking, ‘If I tried to plan this, I could never get this off the ground.’ I love it.

The great part about our business, you have to have a sense of humour, because if you don’t, everything will freak you out completely. Remember, I TRIED to look like that. So when you look at it and go, ‘What was I thinking?’ But that was IT back then. That was the coolest of the cools, the hippest of the hippest.”

The poster even led to him losing an argument with his 17 year old son Miles.

“I was trying to get him to cut his hair and I said, ‘Miles, you’ve got to do something to cut your hair, you’ve got too much hair on your head.’ And he pulls this picture out and goes, ‘Dad – really?’ So I lost the battle.”