Melissa Etheridge is, fundamentally, a rock 'n' roll star. And she does rock 'n' roll things — like write bluesy confessional songs that become huge hits, cover classic-rock greats with uncommon poise (witness her fiery, affect-free take on Janis Joplin's "Piece of my Heart" at the 2005 Grammys), and now, late in her career, touring in support of a collection of Memphis rock and soul covers recorded with legendary Stax session musicians with the kind of stateswoman stature befitting her own assured rock history.
But Etheridge is also so much more than that — largely because she came out as a lesbian in 1993, at a time when nearly all gay celebrities were still somewhat in the closet. Her tendency to speak forthrightly from the heart about the personal and political, particularly when they are one in the same, made her an inspirational figure for millions and, in an almost necessary way, a comforting, healing presence for a liberal community looking for a progressive guiding post with a homespun, retro-minded sound and style.
"It's so funny, because I always from the very beginning just wanted to be a rock star. That's all," Etheridge says bemusedly. "I just wanted to be rich and famous. I didn't want to have any problems and be a rock 'n' roll star. The last thing I wanted to be was an activist. But as life unfolded in front of me, I made my choices."
Etheridge calls herself the "least active activist, because I'm just willing to talk about it," and it's true there's often a sense that by merely being herself, she's serving as a social and political salve.
"I think the job of a musician, the job of a songwriter, is to mirror our society," she says in a way that suggests she thinks of herself as more a conduit than a commentator.
That extends to Memphis Rock and Soul, a record that both feels like an almost inevitable development given Etheridge's blustery, smoky voice and deep affinity for classic soul and R&B. But it also comes at a time of heightened racial tension that makes the tumult of the 1960s seem a lot closer to the present than it did a decade earlier.
"I thought I was just recording some of my favorite songs from Memphis and really show people where this rock 'n' roll came from, and I just happen to release this when we have some really high racial tensions," Etheridge says. "It's almost like I can't not make a statement."
"Working with those musicians down there, hearing their stories — they were touring in the '60s and early '70s, and they saw a lot," she continues. "God, the stories they would tell. They would laugh about it, and I would be just horrified."
Etheridge sounds at home with these musicians though, whether belting through Otis Redding ballads or taking on more unlikely candidates, like Rufus Thomas' "Memphis Train" or a scintillating take on the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself."
"I started with a list of about 150 songs," she says of the song selection and recording process. "I would listen, and it would have to be something that I would be excited to sing, one. And two, something that I felt I could add something to. A lot of these songs have been covered to death — something like 'Try a Little Tenderness;' that's an amazing song. We tried it, and I just felt like I couldn't add anything new. And then there were songs people aren't really familiar with, even some of the Stax players weren't really familiar with. So it was just songs that I felt close to and that I could add something to."
Of course, Etheridge will be coming to Charleston as part of her holiday tour, her first in support of an older collection of Christmas tunes that she recorded following her bout with cancer in the mid-2000s. The choice, she feels, is particularly appropriate in the wake of a contentious election where many feel lost and afraid.
"This holiday show I'm bringing — first it was like, 'Oh, I'm gonna sing some holiday songs,'" she admits. "Now I'm like, 'Ohhh, now we're gonna do some healing.' There needs to be a place we can gather on a spiritual plane, where we're not fighting each other, where it's not 'they're wrong and we're right' — that sort of thing. There needs to be a place. Holiday time is that time worldwide, whether it's Christianity, Judaism, Islam — whatever your spiritual color. It's the same thing. It's a desire to understand this crazy life and reality that we all find ourselves in."
As for how she herself feels about the election?
"I believe we're moving exactly where we are supposed to be going, but I just hadn't had the foresight that we needed to go here to go where we are going," she says with almost a sigh. "But I always look at the whole picture. The darker things get, there's the possibility of that much light coming in. We have race problems, we have people who are afraid, who are so genuinely fearful. They are really afraid for their livelihoods and their homes that are going to be taken away by someone else. And that sort of fear, the fear of the other, is at the basis of it. If we can heal that, we can show how America can work. This is our American experiment."