“If you look back to history, you’ll see they all came from the same place,” Melissa Etheridge says, explaining the roots of American music’s myriad genres. “They all came from the same musical movement in the South, from Appalachian music to the blues coming out of the freed slaves in the early 19th century, and how that all mixed together and became the different genres.”
Etheridge recently released MEmphis Rock and Soul, a collection of classic Southern soul songs that finds her digging into the Stax Records catalogs of her heroes’ heroes. “When you get down to it, you realize, ‘Oh, Janis Joplin and Robert Plant and Mick Jagger were all listening to Otis Redding.’ They were hearing Sam and Dave and going, ‘I want to sing like that!’ Those were the artists who influenced me, so it’s like getting back to that seed.”
MEmphis Rock and Soul is Etheridge’s 14th studio album over the span of nearly 30 years and it sounds like pure joy. “It was really amazing, probably some of the most fun I’ve had,” she says of the recording process, “because I got out of myself, out of my regular writing in my head and the personal stuff to jump inside other songs, a musical project, to go down to Memphis and immerse myself in the feeling and the people and the musicians and the history. Then, coming out with horns and background vocals and everything, it was delightfully fun.”
To really do it right, Etheridge did, indeed, head to Southern soul’s Mecca — Memphis, Tennessee — to record at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios with a stellar backing band anchored by the Hodges Brothers and with vintage gear including one of Al Green’s legendary ribbon microphones. By doing so, she claimed her place in a music lineage that includes Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, the Staple Singers, William Bell, and many more. “I felt so welcomed, so brought in,” she offers. “The thing that always struck me so beautifully about Stax was the interracial thing. It just didn’t matter what color you were. They were just making the music that they loved. It didn’t matter, the color of my skin. There I am. Love.”
Even so, Etheridge wasn’t blind to the import of this music and the issues of the world. With all that’s going on politically and socially, including race issues being at a melting point, it was important for her to revisit these tunes and give them a new voice. “As I felt drawn to this project, I really felt those issues rise to the surface,” she says. “They’ve always been underneath there, bubbling. Really, to see them rise to the surface, it put special meaning to a song like ‘Respect Yourself.’”
For Etheridge’s updated version of the decades-old ditty, she recruited singer/songwriter Priscilla Renea to “help me make this a colorless statement to all of us, to all Americans, to all human beings,” she explains. The two women started with a simple premise: that you can’t simply blame and disrespect everyone around you. “When you change that, when you respect yourself, then you change the world and start to think about things differently and feel like a part of a great movement,” Etheridge offers.
Like many, Etheridge sees the parallels between the great movements for racial equality and LGBTQ rights. She saw the gay nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, as a kindred event to the Black church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina: Both involved someone going into a cultural safe space and making it unsafe. In response, she wrote a song called “Pulse” to benefit the Orlando victims.
“I see it all as the same issue, really, because it goes back to the basic fear of ‘other,’” she says. “That’s what’s driving these events. Someone, inside of them, they’ve been bred and taught that the problems come from the outside, from someone else, that someone’s taking something away from them, so they need to fear. Or there’s something inside yourself you need to fear that is represented outside of you. When you get that sort of pressure and you twist it up with the pain inside a person, they will explode and act out and do these horrible acts. It all comes down to the fear.
“We have to deal with it. We have to find a way to live with inclusion and bring everyone in, celebrating all of the diversity and understanding that diversity makes us stronger.”
An ever-visible, ever-vigilant LGBTQ icon, Etheridge says she is up to the challenges that face us and always feels buoyed by the responsibility that comes with her platform. “I never think of it as a weight, at all, because of the times when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Knowing about you saved my life.’ I get that. Or, ‘When I was a teenager, you made it possible for me to come out.’ That means everything to me,” she says. “So, if anyone has the chance to do so much in the world just by being themselves — and, in reality, we all have that chance just to come out — I’ve always been honored to represent and to inspire a group of people. And I’ll always feel that way.”
And, three decades in, making a record like MEmphis Rock and Soul is but one way Etheridge strives to not only represent and inspire, but also keep things fresh — for herself and her fans. “I have to keep delighting myself,” she says with a laugh. “I have to find the things that excite me, find the things I want to do that challenge me. I want, every time I go on stage, to be excited because I get to perform in a certain way. As long as I keep that going, I believe my audience will be delighted with me. That’s what they want: They want to experience that creation of music and delight in it with me. It’s up to me to keep myself delighted. That’s my journey.”