Off the Charts

Melissa Etheridge

With her raw, unabashed voice and truthful lyrics, Melissa Etheridge has inspired three decades of fans to be true to themselves and rock out while doing so. She was born in Leavenworth, KS, in 1961, and by her teens she was playing country songs at local venues. But, while country has always flavored her music, that tradition wasn’t enough to contain what she had to say.

She headed to Boston for a music degree at Berklee College of Music but had so much success gigging around town that staying in school seemed counterproductive. Instead, she moved to LA in pursuit of a recording contract. She found plenty of venues, particularly in LA’s vibrant lesbian bar scene, and it didn’t take long before she’d signed with Island Records. And a supplemental job composing songs for movies was also important in her development as a songwriter.

By the time she released her debut album, Melissa Etheridge (1988), her underground fandom was already bubbling over. Soon her popularity swelled so far into the mainstream that she was invited to perform at the 1989 Grammy Awards. And the critics were impressed to boot.

“The Late September Dogs,” while not released as a single, may be the finest song on Melissa Etheridge. Yes, it’s a heartbreak song, but the richness of the metaphors in the lyrics make it far from standard fare. Etheridge writes about something we’ve all experienced, even if we can’t articulate it: When there’s a traumatic, unwanted change in our lives, the very air around us seems different.

 

Etheridge’s second album, Brave and Crazy (1989), produced two successful singles, “No Souvenirs” and “You Can Sleep While I Drive.” It also shows her knack for collaboration, bringing together a fine line-up of session musicians.

But the album’s special surprise is the harmonica player on the seven-minute album finale, “Royal Station 4/16.” It’s some Irish guy named Bono. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His lonesome solo blends well with Etheridge’s cracking, bluesy voice and the percussive train-like strumming of her 12-string guitar.

 

While she might have a firm handle on the blues, Etheridge always keeps her sense of humor at the ready. Combine that with a willingness to broach taboo topics, and it’s no wonder more and more people turned to her to represent and reflect their own lives in song.

For example, on the album Never Enough (1992), “Meet Me in the Back” is an up-tempo, light-hearted number with pleading lyrics from the point of view of someone who just wants to get laid. Specifically, a woman. In a way, this is one of Etheridge’s most feminist songs because it expresses the kind of thing women weren’t supposed to talk about.

 

Given the goal of this column to shine a light on lesser-known tracks, we’ll just skip right over Yes I Am (1993), a huge commercial success that brought Etheridge’s name into every household that didn’t already know it. And even while it was groundbreaking for being the first bestselling pop album by an out lesbian, some in the LGBT community criticized it for not having enough specifically gay lyrics. You just can’t win.

Yes I Am was followed with Your Little Secret (1995). After the soul-rousing hits of the previous album, Etheridge showed her more atmospheric side in tracks like “Shriner’s Park.” Her country roots are on proud display here, in a song that practically turns the word “wistful” into musical language.

 

Another aspect of Etheridge’s songwriting and persona that has appealed to and inspired fans is her willingness to analyze herself for the public benefit. While the primary single from the album Breakdown (1999) was the heart-wrenching “Scarecrow,” dedicated to slain gay teen Matthew Shepard, she focuses on herself in “Mama I’m Strange.”

Etheridge’s ability to turn her idiosyncrasies into a source of fierce pride may be the single most important factor in her success. And don’t overlook the tinges of humor, like the faux-Theramin electronic swoops and blips that open this song, as if it were about a space alien rather than a very human girl from Kansas.

 

But sometimes, even for the most self-aware people, life just gets too hard to bear. Etheridge wrote the album Skin (2001) after splitting up with her romantic partner of 12 years, Julie Cypher. It’s an album that’s all about pain. And while some of the songs are of the more analytical type, Etheridge also turned to a fine old tradition to get her through: the good ol’ hard-drivin’ heartache song. This is “Lover Please,” which opens the album:

 

A whole different kind of heartache was in store for Etheridge, but she couldn’t know she was about to be diagnosed with breast cancer when she released Lucky in 2004. At the time of its writing, she —like the rest of America — was trying to normalize after the world-shaking trauma of 9/11. “Tuesday Morning” is her answer in song.

Specifically, Etheridge’s song is a tribute to PR executive Mark Bingham, her friend, who died on United Airlines Flight 93 that morning. Maybe the best thing about this song is its anger and defiance, both in the march-like tempo and in the lyrics focused on how Bingham, who was gay, died heroically but had to live with limited civil rights.

 

Normally I stick with album tracks in this column, but Etheridge’s live tribute to Janice Joplin (with help from Joss Stone) in 2005 is so spectacular that I can’t leave it out. Etheridge had clearly just been in treatment for her cancer, but she sang with a fervor that defied the specter of death. If you know of a more astonishing example of one musician channeling another’s spirit, please let me know! (Etheridge starts at 2:29.)

 

Melissa Etheridge is still at the height of her musical powers, and she seems to have no interest in resting on her laurels or sinking into a greatest-hits twilight. The two-time Grammy winner released The Medicine Show in 2019, and she’s currently touring to support it.

The new album is chock full of outspoken, enraged political opinion, prompting some critics to complain that it’s “wearing” to listen to the whole thing. But we no longer live in the era of the album, so take it one song at a time if you need to. This, for example, is the heavy-rock “Shaking,” and it’s a good place to start: