Melissa Etheridge: Still “The Only One” after 20 Years

By Breanna Mona

Melissa Etheridge is easily one of the best-known female names in rock and roll music, thanks to her smoky vocals and provocative lyrical style. It’s been over twenty years since she reached mega stardom with her gritty chart toppers like, “I’m the Only One “ and “Come to My Window” from her 1993 breakthrough album, Yes I am. Like any other soulful artist, those emotional tones behind the lyrics come from a real place. Etheridge grew up in what she describes in previous interviews as a “lonely home” in Leavenworth, Kansas. She found an early friend in music when she reached for a guitar at age of 8 and discovered she had a mature and strong songwriting ability.

At 18 years old, Etheridge would pack up that guitar and move to Boston, where she studied music at the esteemed Berklee College of Music. Etheridge had a better time playing gigs at piano bars for extra cash than she did studying. She dropped after one year and fled to southern California where she discovered herself and the music scene discovered Etheridge too. Producer Chris Blackwell found Etheridge playing at a lesbian bar in Long Beach and told her, “I think the future of rock and roll has a female voice.”

Despite playing for many gay bars, the media needed a minute to realize that Etheridge was indeed a lesbian herself. She always joked that she was never actually closeted. The press never asked, so she never felt the need to tell. Of course by the time she reached commercial success, questions started swirling around the new rock star. Etheridge decided to answer them all directly simply using the title of her forth and most prevalent album, Yes I Am.

Details of sexual orientation were still highly taboo in the 1990’s. Even today, with gay marriage being legal, Etheridge has confessed that several celebrities continue to come out to her and still not the media. Some even whisper “Can you tell I’m gay?” The respectful Etheridge keeps a tight lid on those names of course. Even though she has always carried a “who cares?” attitude about her own sexuality, she continues to be a powerful figure and role model in the LGBT community.

The following decade found Etheridge as a Grammy-award winning artist in a whirlwind of fame, fortune, and public relationships. She would have to tie bravery and courage around her neck in her personal life when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. The diagnoses immediately brought Etheridge to a spiritual awakening and a new way of living. Going through chemo treatments, she had nothing to do but to reflect, which brought her a “deep stillness.” When asked if she has that stillness with her today, after being more than ten years cancer-free, she laughs and says “Every now and then I can find it. More is needed. And I recommend that you don’t need cancer to find it in the first place.” 

Etheridge received a significant phone call around the time her treatments were ending. The 2005 Grammy Award show wanted Etheridge to play in honor of Janis Joplin. She couldn’t imagine performing a tribute to her idol with a bald head. But also couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it in her place. She said yes and performed a moving tribute for Joplin and gave the audience a show they would never forget.

Etheridge decided nothing, not even cancer would threaten to tarnish her happiness. She boldly decided she would do only what she wanted to do from then on. And she did. Her life took on a new transformation and so did her music. “Intentions on the inside changed. I stopped looking at numbers and the charts. I stopped looking at comparisons and hit songs and decided to just write the best songs I can.” Is she happier without the numbers game? She says with a laugh, “Ohhh yes… Much happier.”

Today, Etheridge is a mom of four kids (two from her previous marriage to Tammy Lynn Michaels) and is on the road with new dreams and new music. Sometimes her kids (ages 9-19) come along for the ride on tour, “They don’t go with me the whole time but they do come out and think it’s cool to be on the road.” While the kids think it’s cool to have a touring mom, Etheridge says, “That’s probably the hardest part [of what I do.] They seem healthy and happy about it though. I’m grateful they have another mom.” The other mom is Etheridge’s relatively new bride (the two tied the knot in 2014), actress, producer and writer, Linda Wallem.

With her new album coming out this fall, those powerful rock and roll roots remain but the content has shifted, “My music is a constant flow; translating emotions and thoughts. As I grow, the subjects change.” Etheridge has referred to her duet with Bruce Springsteen on "Thunder Road" in 1995 as one of the major highlights of her career. When asked who she would love to pair up with today, she carefully thinks it over and says, “Steven Tyler…Adele…anyone who wants to play in my sandbox!”

Etheridge loves playing for cities like Cleveland, Ohio where the atmosphere is ready to rock, “Cleveland…Ohio in generally actually… just loves rock and roll.” Catch her on tour all year long, and even on the water, with her “Rock the Boat” cruise shows with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts starting in October.