Melissa Etheridge rocks again at Wolf Trap

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Barbara Ruben

Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge may have won two Grammy Awards, been honored by Washington’s Women in the Arts Museum last year and garnered a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame in 2011.

But when she was a child in Leavenworth, Kan., a music teacher didn’t know what to make of her raw, gravelly voice.

*My first choir teacher did tell me that my voice was so weird she had to sit me in the back because she didn’t know where to put me,” Etheridge, 52, told the Beacon in an interview that ranged from discussing her distinctive rasp to her mega hits to her breast cancer battle to her early declaration that she is gay.

As for that throaty voice, “I always think it’s like whiskey and cigarettes. But I never drank, and I never smoked. It’s just the days and nights and nights of singing over and over. I’m sure there was plenty of second-hand smoke in the bars and that affected it, too.”

Etheridge, who will perform at Wolf Trap on June 18, is best known for her bluesy rock hits like “Bring Me Some Water” and “Come to my Window.”

Revisiting her hometown

Etheridge’s latest album, released last October, takes her back to Leavenworth. Titled 4th StreetFeeling after the town’s main drag, she recalls a simpler time “when everything I had could fit into my Chevrolet.” In another song, “Kansas City,” Etheridge sings about driving the 100 miles from her hometown to the big city fueled on “Lucky Charms and Tic-Tacs and mom’s amphetamines.”

“I remember thinking in my hometown at 18, ‘This place is nothing. I just want to get out of here and all the troubles I have.’ Someday I’ll be famous. I’ll run away and won’t have any troubles,’ she said.

“But, you know, we bring [troubles] with us. 4th Street Feeling is going back and allowing myself some forgiveness, some space, some, you know what, I did the best I could, and that was good enough.”

Etheridge had a slow rise to fame in Kansas, starting to play her sister’s guitar when she was about 8. “I begged, please, please for a guitar, even though my dad told me I was too young to learn. I practiced until my fingers bled.”

She played in talent shows and local groups, until she was signed by Island Records when she was 26.

“I think of the artists now who are signed so young, and they don’t have that experience of playing and falling down, and writing something and saying that was stupid, and then writing something better, really working at it. I loved the years I got before that,” Etheridge said.

Out of the closet

Soon after her career took off, Etheridge came out as a lesbian.

“It was all anybody wanted to talk about, talking about my personal life over and over and over, really intense. It got me used to it so I could talk about it, so others won’t have to talk about it,” she recalled.

Her orientation “has slowly just become another color crayon in my crayon box. It’s just part of what makes me me,” Etheridge said, noting that while she didn’t aspire to be a role model, many have looked to her as one.

“The young adults who come up to me and say, ‘You save my life. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be who I am. You gave me strength,’ that sort of thing makes everything worth it. I’m just so grateful for that,” she said.

Over the years, Etheridge has quietly helped advocate for gay and lesbian issues. Before last fall’s election, she helped raise money for the same sex marriage ballot question in Maryland, offering to meet with six fans backstage after her Strathmore Music Center concert as a prize for a fundraising contest.

“I’m not out on the pavement and hollering or anything. But I do lend my name and my support to those who are really out there doing the work,” she said

And she is excited that momentum has built across the country for marriage equality issues.

“It’s beautiful being alive at this time in our country,” she said.
“We got it to the Supreme Court….We’re at the tipping point.”

“What makes America so great is its ability to handle diversity, the ability to believe that diversity is what makes us strong and the belief that all men are created equal. Helloooooo? That’s the challenge here.”

Trials and triumphs

On the personal relationship front, though, Etheridge has had a rocky time. After she and longtime domestic partner, “L Word” actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, broke up in 2010, they entered into a protracted legal battle over child support for their 6-year-old twins born to Michaels by an anonymous sperm donor. Etheridge also has two teens, who were adopted before the relationship with Michaels.

But one of Etheridge’s biggest battles was her breast cancer diagnosis in 2005. She was in the middle of a tour when she was diagnosed and canceled 11 shows. Soon after treatment, she was back on stage — sans hair.

“Coming back, the first thing I did was go on stage and prove to myself that, hey, I can rock this. This is not going to knock me off anywhere. I’m better than I was before,” said Etheridge, who has been cancer free since finishing treatment.

She said she works hard now to eat healthy, whole food and minimize stress.

“Health is my responsibility. There’s no drug, there’s no doctor, there’s no special, amazing thing that’s going to come down and allow me to desecrate my body with stress or food. My body doesn’t live that way,” she said.

At home on stage

And one of her incentives to stay healthy is to keep on performing.

“The truth is, I love it, I love it, I love it. It’s the favorite thing I do to take these songs I’ve crafted, these personal moments, these paintings I’ve made, and create them in front of you live. And you get to scream and holler. It’s a ritual that we don’t have enough of in our culture any more, and I’m happy to provide it.

As for what’s on tap at Wolf Trap, Etheridge says, “I will always include the favorites, the songs that really rise to the top. I’m going to do ‘Come to My Window.’ I’m going to do ‘Bring Me Some Water.’

“And you know what? They’re a blast to play every time because people love them so much. I love them because people love them. It’s a wonderful experience to start those songs with people standing up and going, ‘That’s my song!’

And Etheridge, who lives in Los Angeles, enjoys playing in the Washington area once or twice a year.

“I love Wolf Trap. I just remember it being the most humid place I’ve ever played. But the more humid it is, the better my vocals are, actually,” she said of the area’s swampy genesis. “I love the whole area. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and I look forward to it.”

Learn more about the Wolf Trap show and buy tickets at www.wolftrap.org/Find_Performances_and_Events/Performance/13Filene/0618show13.aspx or call 1-877-965-3872. Listen to Etheridge’s ”4th Street Feeling” and watch videos at her website, www.melissaetheridge.com