Melissa Etheridge may be known as one of the quintessential heartland rockers, but her two most recent albums show that soul music was very much a part of Etheridge’s musical education, and she says the honest emotions embodied in the great soul songs influenced her own often-confessional lyrics.
“Growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas, we listened to the Kansas City radio stations,” Etheridge said in a recent phone interview. “There was a radio station called WHB back when we just had AM (radio). It was that kind of station that would play everything, a Top 40 station. And you could hear Tammy Wynette, you could then hear Led Zeppelin, then you could hear Otis Redding. It didn’t narrow itself. All of those songs came through. And then you’d hear Motown and you’d hear pop music, just everything.
“So I didn’t have this sort of boundary, like oh, that’s not my music, at all. I felt it was this great big soup of music that was being made in America,” she said. “I thought it was some of the greatest stuff. And then I could hear Elvis Presley or I could hear the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and you could hear the (soul) influence in their music, too. So I kind of felt like we were all trying to sing the same song in our own different ways.”
For most fans, though, soul was mainly a word they would have used in relation to Etheridge’s song lyrics, which often possessed the passion and honesty associated with classic soul. But the music on most of the dozen albums that preceded Etheridge, who has notched five platinum-selling albums in a catalog that now boasts 13 albums released since 1988, has very clearly demonstrated her love of soul music on her current album, “Memphis Rock and Soul.”
On that album, released last year, she covered a dozen songs from soul music’s golden age of the late 1960s/very early 1970s. Some of tunes are well known, such as Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” (which gets a lyrical update from Etheridge and co-writer Priscilla Renea), but other gems (like Barbara Stevens’ “Wait A Minute” and Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train”) are probably unfamiliar to all but true aficionados of the soul genre.
The performances on “Memphis Rock and Soul” crackle with energy (just note the thumping feel on Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” and the insistent drive that lives up to Sam & Dave’s original version of “Hold On, I’m Coming”), and Etheridge’s vocals sound truly inspired as she breathes life into the songs.
“Memphis Rock and Soul” follows an album of original material, 2014’s “This Is M.E.,” that had more of a soulful bent than any of Etheridge’s earlier albums and put considerable emphasis on rhythm and groove. For Etheridge, doing “Memphis Rock and Soul” made sense coming off of that album.
“I think it was a natural step because it was the same new management team that helped me put together ‘This Is M.E.,’” Etheridge said. “They were the ones that came and said ‘Well, yeah, since you want to get more soulful, why don’t we go to the heart of soul and do a covers album?’ ‘A covers album? What do you mean, I’m a songwriter.’ And then I went wait a minute, these are the songs I would have written had I been (able to). It comes from the same wellspring, so I said ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”
With the idea in place, Etheridge and her team decided to go to the epicenter of classic soul – Memphis – to record the album. To add authenticity to things, she booked Royal Studio, a facility built by producer Willie Mitchell that became home to Hi Records in the 1960s and 1970s.
Mitchell’s son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, now runs Royal Studios, which remains essentially unchanged from its 1960s heyday. Mitchell assembled a studio band for the project with direct ties to the soul era.
The Rev. Charles Hodges (organ), Leroy Hodges (bass) and Archie “Hubbie” Turner (keyboards) were part of the famous Hi Rhythm Section, which backed such stars as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles and Rufus Thomas on their albums. Guitarist Michael Toles was a member of the Bar-Kays, which along with Booker T. & The MGs, served as backing bands for Stax Records, the other legendary Memphis label that was home to such legends as Redding, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. Together, Etheridge and the musicians finished “Memphis Rock and Soul” in 10 days of recording.
“These guys were just consummate,” Etheridge said of her studio musicians. “They were absolutely there from the first downbeat, and every song is, if not the first take, the second. I don’t even think we got to a third take on songs. Yeah, it was unbelievably professional, and they also listened when I said ‘OK, I’d like to slow this down. I’d like to do that.’ They were so, so cooperative and just talented, and so much fun. Oh my God, they had so many stories.”