Melissa Etheridge taps into her Memphis soul

Grammy and Oscar-winning musician Melissa Etheridge performs Saturday at Four Winds Casino Resort’s Silver Creek Event Center in support of her latest album, “MEmphis Rock and Soul,” which pays homage to the history of Stax Records.

NEW BUFFALO — Melissa Etheridge talks about inspiration with equal doses of reverence and nostalgia.

“There’s a lot of music that inspired me; music that I’ve always wanted to sing and play,” she says by phone from her home in Hidden Hills, Calif. “But as I developed my career, I really wanted to be a singer-songwriter. It was very important that the songs I wrote and the music come through me. Now, 30 years later, I think, ‘You know what? I can sing someone else’s song right now. I can go back and interpret something that inspired me.’”

Etheridge is talking about the Memphis soul that came out of Stax Records from the late 1950s through the 1970s – everything from the label’s house band, Booker T. & the MG’s to its star, Otis Redding. Etheridge, who performs Saturday at Four Winds Casino Resort’s Silver Creek Event Center, is touring in support of “MEmphis Rock and Soul,” her 12-song album released in October, which was recorded in Memphis at the famed Royal Studios.

The album features reverent versions of Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” and the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” as well as some discoveries deep into the Stax catalog such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” and the dance-inducing “Wait a Minute.” 

For Etheridge, this was music she first heard through the radio on 810 WHB-AM in her childhood home in Leavenworth, Kan.; the same music that helped uncover her own penchant for writing songs from her soul.

“It was all about music for me,” she says. “My parents were not musical, yet they did have a great record collection, and I would listen to everything from Simon & Garfunkel and The Mamas & the Papas to Aretha Franklin and Al Green. ... I just ate up everything I could.”

Etheridge first picked up a guitar at age 8, and began to play in Kansas bars and clubs as a teen until moving to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music.

“I had become a big fish in a tiny pond in Kansas, and when I got to Boston I was an itty-bitty tadpole in a huge ocean,” Etheridge says. “I was really intimidated by the punk scene. I didn’t quite understand the angst. I didn’t come from that inner city feeling, yet I remember The Rings, I remember The Brats. There was some great Boston music that was happening.”

After five semesters at Berklee, Etheridge decided to drop out and head to Los Angeles, taking a chance on her own music career.

“I came to California thinking, ‘OK, they have the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, that whole Southern California thing,” Etheridge says. “Then when I got there in 1982, it was all hair bands and spandex.”

After five years toiling in the Los Angeles bar scene, Etheridge signed to Island Records in 1987, recording her eponymous debut released in 1988, which featured the Grammy-nominated single, “Bring Me Some Water.” Her third album, 1992’s “Never Enough,” earned Etheridge her first Grammy win for the single “Ain’t It Heavy.”

But it was her fourth recording, 1993’s “Yes I Am,” anchored by the hits “Come to My Window” – which earned a second Grammy – and “I’m the Only One,” that turned out to be her mainstream breakthrough.

With that popularity, however, came more personal questions from reporters, as well as speculation about her sexuality, which in January 1993 led Etheridge to come out publicly as lesbian at the Triangle Ball of President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.

“I did not know what would happen at all,” Etheridge says. “There were literally a handful of people I knew who were out on a public stage. There was Martina Navratilova and, well, that was kind of it.”

During interviews, Etheridge was careful to use non-specific genders when talking about her romantic partner.

“(Then) an interviewer went back and changed all of what I said to ‘my boyfriend,’” Etheridge says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it looks like I am completely lying.’ It really made me kind of crazy. I had a cult following of LGBT people, and they are going to see that. It just made me feel awful. So I thought, ‘I have to come out.’ I was involved politically with Bill Clinton, and a lot of people who were working against the AIDS crisis. Those two things melded together at the inauguration and I didn’t even think about it. I stepped up to the microphone at an inaugural ball and said ‘I’m gay’ and that was it.”

Since then, Etheridge has been a very open and active gay rights advocate, including her decision to release the song “Pulse” last year after 49 people died and another 58 were wounded in a hate crime attack inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

“That was art as therapy for me,” she says. “There are times where I am very grateful to be able to put emotion into a song. I just started writing it and not even thinking of giving it to the world at all until I was almost done with it.”

Etheridge called producer and friend Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis, who cleared his schedule for the day so Etheridge could record the song in his New York City studio.

“I went in and recorded it, and they stayed up all night mixing it so it could be on the internet the next day,” Etheridge says. “It was just something I wanted to put out into the world to try to put as much good out there as there is the hard stuff.”

When it comes to music, Etheridge has put out more than her share of “good” in a nearly three-decade recording career that shows no signs of waning.

“It’s really amazing when slowly a song catches on and you know it’s your song and people are loving it and they don’t stop loving it,” Etheridge says. “It feels really great. It still feels great. When I start ‘Come To My Window,’ it still feels great. Everybody’s screaming and hollering and it’s their own. I dig that.”  

Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio

If you go

Who: Melissa Etheridge

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: Four Winds Casino Resort’s Silver Creek Event Center, 11111 Wilson Road, New Buffalo

How much: $55-$85

Contact: 866-494-6371 or www.fourwindscasino.com