Melissa Etheridge started playing guitar when she was eight years old. She became a gay icon when she came out publicly in 1993, and she accepted GLADD's Stephen F. Kolzak Award in 2006 for promoting equal pay for the LGBTQ community. She's an environmental activist who has toured using biodiesel, and she even wrote an original song for Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. She's won a Grammy and an Oscar. She's also a breast-cancer survivor, a mother, and a wife. In her latest project, she takes on a new role as music historian to the notable Stax Records. Stax was the Memphis-based label best known for its marquee artist Otis Redding, but it was also home to Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, the Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, and house band Booker T & the M.G.'s.
Etheridge scoured through the masters of this label, which was a seminal force in R&B, funk, and soul music during the '60s and '70s, finding songs to reinterpret and bring to a new generation on her latest album, Memphis Rock and Soul. Melissa and I talked about the music that made her into the artist she is, how recording and in some cases rewriting classic Stax tracks impacted her as an artist, and where you can find that Stax influence in the music you listen to today.
Courtney E. Smith: What got your attention about this project?
Melissa Etheridge: I can't help but be really influenced by Otis Redding. I remember hearing him when I was younger, but I was drawn to him as I got older. I began to understand that he was who Janis Joplin was trying to sing like. He influenced so many people. His live performances are what I want to emulate. It's what I think entertainment, showmanship, raw talent, and charisma are about. He has everything. He wrote the songs; he was an amazing musician and singer.
The opportunity to make this record came up with John Burk at Concord Records, who said, "We want to open Stax up again and have you do a record on the label. We'd like it to be music from the Stax catalog." It was an opportunity for me to become a scholar on the history of the label and show where the way I sing came from.
CES: When you think about the other musicians who are influenced by the music of Stax, who comes to mind?
ME: Bruno Mars is the grandkid of Stax. He and his producer Mark Ronson, they're all soulful, and that's exactly where they're coming from. Amy Winehouse, if you asked her, she would have been listening to Stax Records. "You Know I'm No Good" is actually the drumbeat from Otis Redding's "Tramp." And Adele! If you asked any of these people about Otis Redding or Stax Records, they'd tell you it's the gold mine.
When you hear Rihanna sing "I want you to stay," you know that feeling? That's the feeling my generation got when we heard someone like Joe Cocker singing "I get by with a little help from my friends." And that's the feeling he got when he heard Otis Redding sing "I've been loving you too long."
CES: How did you go about sorting through the Stax catalog and picking these songs?
ME: That was probably the hardest part. I started with about 200 songs in the summer of 2015, and I knew I wouldn't be recording until February of 2016. I wanted to record the songs that I felt I could make mine. Songs I could play live and my fans would recognize and want to sing along to at the top of their lungs. I wanted to do the songs that I love that I wanted to sing at the top of my lungs!