Lionel Richie hasn't gone so far as to don a cowboy hat – yet – but that hasn't kept him from feeling the love from the country music world: the R&B singer and Eighties pop star sold a whopping 20,000 copies of his new LP, Tuskegee, in a single hour during his live concert event on HSN last Friday night.
"To do this album was very eye-opening," the five-time Grammy winner told Rolling Stone just before the start of the show, which broadcast live from St. Petersburg, Florida to the 24-hour shopping network's TV, Web and Facebook audiences. "I didn't realize that all of country knew all of my songs anyway."
Tuskegee, named for the 62-year-old's Alabama hometown and featuring countrified covers of some of his biggest hits (including "Say You, Say Me," "Stuck on You," and "Easy"), teams Richie with a host of country superstars, including Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker (a country crossover artist himself) and Willie Nelson. The album also features the first new recording from Shania Twain in seven years, as she replaces Diana Ross on a new version of "Endless Love." In fact, Richie said Twain was so nervous to record with him, they had to fly to her house in the Caribbean to make it happen and wound up placing microphones in her bedroom just to get her comfortable enough to sing.
For Richie, the crossover to country had been decades in the making. "Conway Twitty wanted me to come years ago and 'be country,'" Richie said, "but I was too busy being a Commodore. Then Kenny Rogers wanted me to go country, but I was too busy being the 'pop' Lionel Richie. Then all of a sudden we went into an area where it was, 'Can Lionel Richie rap?' No!" he said with a laugh. "Trust me. I can do it, but you don't want to hear me. Flava Flav said, 'Don't try it! If you want somebody to rap, you call me. I'll rap. You just sing!"
Finding himself caught in a country craze that's embracing singers and songwriters from just about any genre these days, Richie finally felt ready to make the leap. "The beautiful part about it is, once I started talking to Tim McGraw and to Kenny Chesney and all of them, it became clear: These songs (of mine) have already been country," he said. "So Lionel Richie's not 'going country.' I'm just joining the songs that are already there. I just have to show up next to 'em and go, 'That's mine.'"
While Kenny Rogers was the only guest to join him onstage for the launch event (singing "Lady"), Richie sounded better than ever on twanged-out solo versions of "Dancing on the Ceiling," "All Night Long," "Hello," and more – in front of an live studio audience that included celebrity chefs Todd English and Curtis Stone, as well as fashion icon Twiggy.
The HSN Live concert, along with Richie's SXSW appearance last week, were precursors to an upcoming world tour. "My kids are old enough where I can leave home," says the father of three, who admits to loving his role as a grandfather to his daughter Nicole Richie's two kids far more than expected. "I gotta tell ya, I thought it was not going to be sexy at all, (but) I'm having the best time."