Staying true to oneself is a goal everyone should reach for. It’s a lesson that Melissa Etheridge has embraced right up through the release of her latest album, last year’s Memphis Rock and Soul. While it would be easy to classify it as a vanity project by another rock star looking to pay homage to their influences (which it is), this outing also represents Etheridge’s current mindset. It’s one that emerged following a 2004 breast cancer diagnosis that understandably turned the Kansan’s world upside down and had her take a hard look at the choices she was making, starting with 2007’s The Awakening, her ninth studio album.
“Before cancer, I was really concerned with being on the radio and having hit songs and that really drove my music into a kind of stale place. After cancer, I didn’t care anymore because it was about making music that I love and inspires me,” she recalled. “I think that I’ve made some of my best music since then. Fearless Love and This is M.E. and even 4th Street Feeling have all been music that came straight from my heart and from the moment of enjoying and concentrating on my live performances because that’s where people keep coming back over and over and having that experience. I’ve fallen in love with music all over again.”
If 2010’s aforementioned Fearless Love served as an homage to Etheridge’s classic rock influences, the throaty singer-songwriter decided to take it one step further by delving into Stax-Volt, a southern label whose sound reverberated with a far grittier rock and soul vibe than the smoother and less edgy approach Motown was taking around the same time. With such a rich vault of material to delve into, the 56-year-old rocker wanted to avoid going with doing obvious cuts that have been covered ad nauseam. She wound up starting out with a wish list of 200 songs before whittling it down to the dozen that wound up on the album.
“So much of what I am now is made up of the music of my past and their inspiration. I know that so much of the way I sing comes from the blues, soul music and R&B and that’s such a big part of rock and roll. I thought that I’d love to do a covers album and not just, here are a bunch of songs,” she said. “I wanted to get into them, restructure a few to fit my style more and just celebrate. I even found a song that the Stax people didn’t even remember. It’s called ‘Wait a Minute’ and it was by Barbara Stephens and it’s from the early 1960s. If you can ever hear the original recording, she’s just singing with such grit, and I’m sure Janis Joplin must have listened to her. Those [artists] are the inspiration for the rock and roll people that I looked up to.”
Recorded at Royal Studios, a converted Memphis vaudeville studio built by the late storied R&B producer Willie Mitchell and run by his son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, Memphis Rock and Soul was cut in 10 days. Backed by a litany of veterans including Hi Records house musicians Leroy Hodges and the Reverend Charles Hodges, Etheridge’s style fits hand-in-glove with both the arrangements and the chosen songs. The proceedings kick off with the obscure Rufus Thomas gem “Memphis Train,” which layers female harmonies and biting harmonica runs by Etheridge which are followed by a standout reading of The Staples Singers’ trademark “Respect Yourself (Stand Up).” Etheridge favorite Otis Redding is represented by a pair of classics—a gut-wrenching take on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and the aching “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.” Best of all is William Bell’s “I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” a tale of regret and sorrow soaked in sweetly understated strings and sublime guitar that is quite a contrast to the more hyperactive reading Billy Idol gave it as a 1986 Top 10 hit dubbed “To Be a Lover.” When asked what fans can expect on this current tour, Etheridge explained that it’ll be a smattering of these songs along with more holiday-oriented fare.
“This holiday tour features songs from my Christmas album that I did in 2008 called A New Thought for Christmas, which is more of a spiritual-leaning album than one that’s religious,” she said. “When you come see the show, we’re going to do the hits and have all the fun that we do. It’s just going to have a feel that is needed now. That when we come to the end of the year and are looking back at it in reflection, that we do it with inspiration and hope. That’s my plan.”
Melissa Etheridge will be appearing on Nov. 26 at The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington. For more information, visit www.theparamountny.com or call 631-673-7300.
Visit www.longislandweekly.com to read about Melissa Etheridge’s favorite R&B artists.