Country music fans under 40 are left scratching their heads about all the hype surrounding Lionel Richie‘s courting of Nashville’s greatest artists. First it was a duet with Shania Twain, now a full album of duets called ‘Tuskegee,’ and soon, the topper — a night in his honor after the ACM Awards next week.

It all feels a little bit … random. There’s no getting around Richie’s talent and influence, but it’s difficult to believe that every artist featured on ‘Tuskegee’ grew up listening to hits like ‘Easy,’ ‘Stuck on You’ and ‘Dancing on the Ceiling.’ Though they both grew up in the south, there isn’t a scent of soulful pop on anything Jason Aldean has ever recorded, yet there he is, singing away with conviction on ‘Say You, Say Me.’

It’s worth getting over the question of “Why?” to discover 13 collaborators all at the top of their game alongside Richie. Not every song turns out to be a memorable recreation of the original — Tim McGraw‘s parts on ‘Sail On’ fail to draw distinction — but there are many pleasant surprises. It’s been a decade or more since Willie Nelson sounded as strong as he does on ‘Easy,’ and Darius Rucker, an artist whose enthusiasm rarely disappoints, finds a new level of energy and excitement singing ‘Stuck on You’ alongside Richie.

Kenny Chesney‘s ‘My Love’ and Little Big Town‘s ‘Deep River Woman’ are two more highlights that more than make up for momentum dips like the thick, syrupy ‘Endless Love’ with Shania Twain and ‘All Night Long’ with Jimmy Buffett. The concept of his album is unique, although the execution is at times flawed (Who really sat around thinking, “I wonder what Billy Currington would sound like singing with Lionel Richie?”).

Younger fans willing to take a chance at iTunes will find a great contemporary singer making everyone in the room better. The production is sharp and there are moments it sounds like the everyone is having the time of their lives. It should make an exciting television special — ‘Lionel Richie and Friends – In Concert — although it’s doubtful anyone born after President Reagan was elected will be setting their DVRs.

4 Stars

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