July 11, 2012 12:00 PM

It was a night of endless love when some of Nashville’s biggest names gathered in Las Vegas April 2 for the Academy of Country Music’s ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends-In Concert tribute. “He’s one of the most phenomenal singer-songwriters that ever existed,” Sara Evans gushed of the Grammy-winning hitmaker. “And he’s still got it-he’s just cool.” Added Jason Aldean, who performed “Say You, Say Me” at the tribute and on Richie’s CD of country duets, Tuskegee: “He’s timeless. You never get tired of listening to his songs.”

Backstage before the show, country stars embraced their superfans within, greeting Richie and reminiscing about what his music meant to them. “I knew they knew the songs, but not like this,” Richie said. “They’re telling me stories of growing up with me!”

Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott said she learned to sing harmony by listening to “Easy” as a little girl, while Tim McGraw remembered playing a 45 of “Still” over and over in his bedroom. “One of my earliest memories of wanting to sing was to Commodores records,” he said. For Luke Bryan, Richie’s songs evoked memories of the brother he lost in 1996: “He couldn’t sing worth a dang, but he loved the old Commodores song ‘Oh No,’ and I remember him attempting to sing it!” And Kenny Chesney credited his mom, who would sing Richie’s music around the house, with sparking his own love for Lionel: “This is as big a deal for her as it is for me,” he said.

With 13 Top 10 singles in the ’80s, “Lionel was at every homecoming, every prom; it was just hit after hit,” said Rascal Flatts’s Gary LeVox. “And his heart is bigger than any song he’s ever written.”

For Richie, all the country love felt like home. “I’m from Tuskegee, Alabama, so I’m pretending more in Beverly Hills than I am here,” he said. “I feel like I’ve found a family of great talent that could be my great new old friends.”

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