By Web Behrens
Like millions of others listening to the radio in the mid-’60s, Melissa Etheridge remembers when she first heard The Beatles. But she wasn’t a lovestruck adolescent dreaming about dating John, Paul, George, or Ringo; she was a toddler experiencing an epiphany.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not just one of her earliest memories of music, but one of her earliest memories, period. “I was about 3 years old, and I remember standing in the driveway of my friend’s house,” recalls the rock star, who plays Ravinia Sunday, June 23, on tour with her new release, The Medicine Show. “I was holding a transistor radio and hearing angels’ voices coming out of it, singing ‘I want to hold your haaannd!’ you know? I have a distinct memory of going, ‘What’s this gorgeous sound?’ ” (The timeline tracks: Etheridge was born in May 1961; “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which kicked off the so-called British Invasion, began a long reign atop the US charts in February 1964.)
The youngest of two children born to a Leavenworth, KS, couple, Etheridge grew up surrounded by “a lot of really great music.” For one thing, “My older sister had all The Beatles’ records,” she says. Meanwhile, her parents’ album collection complemented the new pop-rock that began ruling the airwaves.
The next step in fulfilling her fate came around age 8, when she first picked up an instrument. “My father brought home a guitar for my sister, and they said I wouldn’t be able to play it,” Etheridge recounts. “I begged and pleaded, and my fingers bled, but I did play it. So it was guitar first. Then I wanted to learn drums, but they said girls couldn’t play drums, so I had to learn the clarinet. And it went from there.” The prodigy, now 58 years old, says she only plays a few well: “I play saxophone, but I’m never going to put that in front of anybody. The guitar, the piano, the harmonica, the drums—those are the ones I’ll play in front of people.”
Her musical growth came more through determination and hard work than through formal education. She played with a few bands as a teenager; after finishing high school, she then moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, but only briefly: “The rest has just been life!”
Just as she would later promise in one of her biggest songs, she has indeed ridden destiny’s trail—all the way into two marriages, four children, and strong public advocacy for LGBT people and for cancer survivors. Professionally, she blazed her way into earning multiple platinum albums, two Grammys, an Oscar, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and international success. And all in a field that, in the 1980s, wasn’t exactly welcoming to women as headlining rock ’n’ rollers.
By the metrics of exposure and sales, Etheridge has always seemed blessed. She hit it big from the start. Her first, self-titled release spawned the hits “Like the Way I Do” and “Bring Me Some Water,” which earned her first Grammy Award nomination in 1988. She notched two more noms in ’89 and ’90 before winning her first Grammy in 1992. But of course, the real dividends came from doing what came naturally to her: matching the grind of the road with the high of thrilling an audience. Concert by concert, she built a dedicated fan base like few women in rock have done.
“Chicago was always there from the very beginning,” Etheridge says. “One of the reasons I have such a great following in Chicago is because I had great radio support from XRT and, eventually, from The Loop. They’ve played all those songs from the beginning.” [WXRT continues to be a strong supporter, and will be broadcasting live from Ravinia on the night of the concert.] Within the span of two years, she went from booking the Park West—where hundreds could thrill to extended jam versions of “Brave and Crazy” and “Let Me Go” with then-bassist and producer Kevin McCormick—to playing for thousands in huge arenas in the early ’90s.
All along in her still-young career, the songwriter had been harboring a secret with a clever lyrical trick. Plenty of her songs wrestled with romance, and she commonly sang about the other woman—but the person who did the heartbreaking was always “you.” In other words, she employed a second-person gender-neutral pronoun, never a specific third-person “he” (or “she”). Listeners could project any gender onto the Casanova, and Etheridge could walk a fine line of avoiding a public coming-out at a time when such a thing was commonly thought to be career suicide.
She laid plenty of bread crumbs, though. In “Testify,” from her 1989 sophomore album, she told attentive queer fans just who she was, and she made a promise she’d live up to soon enough. She sang of people “drenched in pride / Marching to their drum with fear standing beside,” and built to the chorus: “I, I want to testify / My love still lives and breathes / And my soul is screaming why / The thoughts won’t let me sleep / Don’t let hearts break / And don’t let children cry / Before it gets too late / I want to testify.”
Her public testimony accompanied what felt like a new era in American history. A supporter of Bill Clinton during his first presidential campaign, she attended his inauguration and came out to the country at a ball in January 1993. Later that year, she released her fourth album, triumphantly (if cheekily) titled, Yes I Am. It might not sound like a big deal to a most people today, but it truly was a brave step 25 years ago. (For further context, Etheridge came out four years before Ellen DeGeneres and nearly a decade before Rosie O’Donnell. Meanwhile, male stars who poked their heads out of the closet, such as Elton John, Boy George and Michael Stipe, typically claimed the label “bisexual” before eventually using the word “gay.”) In a stroke of poetic justice, Yes I Am became her biggest-selling release ever.
As life would have it, that proclamation was not the last time she’d publicly address a deeply personal issue. Yes I Am made her a hero to the LGBT community, but another seismic event a decade later would make her a hero to many millions more. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, the songwriter spoke openly about dealing with the devastating disease. It was another chance to talk about a struggle in the hopes that her story could give hope to others.
For Etheridge, the personal is directly, even inexorably, linked to the political. Life leads her directly to both creativity and social activism. “I find that it’s not usually me that chooses. It’s usually the cause,” she says. “Like being a gay person, LGBT, that was just me. My own choices then put me in the spotlight with that. Same with cancer; cancer came to me, and my choices put me in the spotlight with that.
“Now it’s cannabis,” Etheridge continues, speaking of her latest cause. (It’s often called “medical marijuana” in common parlance.) “I’m an advocate for it because I use it as medicine. … There are a lot of people who don’t really know what’s going on, and I hope to educate.”
Naturally, “The Medicine Show,” her new release’s title track, nods to her latest personal-as-political experience. An anthemic opening number, it’s a raucous call to good times, complete with a nursery-rhyme-inflected chorus that audiences will surely chant along with. Etheridge freely admits that, in writing the lyrics, she had cannabis in mind—but was also thinking metaphorically. “When I call it ‘The Medicine Show,’ I believe music is medicine. Joy is medicine,” she says. “It’s thinking about medicine in a whole new way. It’s not just getting a pill from a doctor. This is very different; it’s about understanding your own medicine, your own body’s ability to heal, and how plant medicine is a part of that.” Or, as distilled into the lyrics: “A little remedy never do you no harm.”
The song also references a 2017 arrest for possession of marijuana in North Dakota. Her tour bus was returning from Canada when border patrol pulled them over and dogs sniffed out the contraband. Although a resident of California, where she could legally possess and use cannabis, the uneven patchwork of state laws across the country (not to mention federal anti-drug laws) led her to ultimately plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge. She paid a fine and was sentenced to unsupervised probation.
“I was on the books for, I think, eight months, and then it kind of goes away. You know, I’m a white middle-aged woman, so there you go,” she says. “There’s forward movement” to legalize the drug across the country, she adds. “One day this will be quaint and funny, and we’ll work on helping all the people whose lives are ruined and behind bars” because of personal pot use.
The flip side to “The Medicine Show” is “Here Comes the Pain,” a haunting ballad about the tragedy of opioid addiction. Meanwhile, “The Last Hello” traces how the horror and grief of school shootings evolved into activism (particularly the Parkland massacre, which inspired the nationwide March for Our Lives). But despite the darkness she sees in the world today, Etheridge also knows how to look to the light. She aims to inspire with “This Human Chain,” an R&B groove that celebrates connectivity and love.
While working on the album, Etheridge says, “I knew I was living in interesting times, and I knew this album would reflect these times. Many of the songs, we’ll look back in ten years and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what was going on.’ … This feeling of togetherness, unity through diversity—I hope it lasts.” ▪
Web Behrens covers arts, culture, and travel for the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business. He’s also worked as an editor and contributor for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader.