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Artist, activist Melissa Etheridge inspires through music, outreach

After 32 years in the business and 13 studio albums, prolific singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge was looking to switch gears and take a brief respite from songwriting.

Looking to the roots of rock ’n’ roll for inspiration, Etheridge rediscovered a passion for soul music and the work of legendary Memphis label Stax Records.

It was then that the idea for “Memphis Rock and Soul” was born.

Etheridge traveled to Memphis and dug through the label’s extensive catalog. When she was done, she had a list of nearly 100 potential songs to cover.

“The intensity of Otis Redding and the performers and singers and songwriters that came out of there, it has so much to do with what I’m doing, so it was such a pleasure to reach back,” Etheridge said from a recent tour stop in Reno, Nevada.

She will perform at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Friday.

To narrow down that list of songs to the dozen that made the album, Etheridge looked at what songs she felt she could add her own flavor to, what songs she thought she could sing truthfully and the ones that, in the studio, simply felt right.

The original Stax Records burned down in the ’80s (the site is now home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music), so Etheridge recorded in Royal Studios, legendary in its own right for its work with the likes of Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Ike and Tina Turner.

“They still have a great Memphis sound, so it was the next best thing,” Etheridge said.

On “Memphis Rock and Soul,” Etheridge dusted off tunes like Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train,” Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” and Barbara Stephens’ “Wait A Minute” and gave them a new attitude. John Mayer assisted, playing on lead guitar on Redding’s “Rock Me Baby” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.”

Her signature raspy voice adds a modern spark, although she stays true to the original emotion of each track.

Try as she might, Etheridge couldn’t make every song on her list work. She gave “Try a Little Tenderness” a shot but didn’t feel like she added anything special to the Redding tune.

“Also ‘Knock on Wood.’ I really tried to make that work,” she said. “And ‘Walking the Dog.’ I thought I could rock them up. They just live the way they are.”

Even with a cover project like “Memphis Rock and Soul,” Etheridge couldn’t stay away from songwriting; she wrote new lyrics for the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself (People Stand Up)” and “I’m A Lover.”

On tour in support of the album, Etheridge called the project rewarding and said fans are happy with it, too.

“The fans have really loved the performances, and because I stayed true to who I am, they love that aspect of it,” she said.

Etheridge has stayed true to herself ever since she burst onto the scene with 1988’s “Melissa Etheridge” and the Grammy-nominated single “Bring Me Some Water.”

With her fourth album, 1993’s “Yes I Am,” featuring “I’m the Only One” and the Grammy-winning “Come to My Window,” Etheridge established herself as one of rock music’s most revered voices, and she’s cemented that status with each subsequent release.

With this platform, Etheridge has championed for a variety of causes throughout her career.

She won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “I Need to Wake Up” from the global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2007, and she has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community since coming out in 1993.

She donated cabins on last year’s Melissa Etheridge and Friends “Rock the Boat” cruise to survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and it was on this cruise that she met Robin Maynard with the Libby’s Legacy Breast Cancer Foundation and got the ball rolling on a cause very close to her heart, the Pink Ribbon Garden Project.

“We started talking about health and I said ‘The best thing you can do for your health and for your community’s health is have a community garden,’ ” Etheridge, a breast cancer survivor, said. “She followed up and said ‘OK, let’s do this.’ ”

The Pink Ribbon Garden Project’s first garden is located in Lake Druid Park in Orlando. Etheridge and Maynard had a ribbon cutting ceremony for the garden in May, and Etheridge said there are plans to bring community gardens to other cities.

“Now we can start doing research on what (affect) healthy whole food has,” she said. “It affects the survivorship of people with breast cancer.”

Etheridge didn’t intend to become the activist she is today, but some things are unavoidable.

“It was the ’80s; I wanted to be a rich and famous rock star,” she said with a laugh. “Then life happens along the way and the choices you make really lead you to what you are.”

The always busy Etheridge is currently at work on what will be her 15th studio album. She’s in the writing phase and hopes to enter the studio later this year.

With the mind of an artist and activist, Etheridge can’t help but be inspired by the current political climate and all that’s going on in the world.

“Although I’m never one to preach, it certainly inspires me that the issues on everyone’s mind is ‘How are we going to live together?’… ” she said. “We’re insisting on judging each other by our differences and that’s what’s keeping us apart and causing so much of the tension and trouble.”

But Etheridge knows her work, and the work of all artists, has the power to ease that tension and bring people together.

“This is the time for artists to be artists,” she said. “The meaning of our work is to inspire people through times like this.”


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