Melissa Etheridge: Greatest Hits The Road Less Traveled
It seems only fitting that Melissa Etheridge released her first career retrospective in the month of October. Was it intentional? By music industry standards, the fall season is the time of year to show off all of their biggest stars, and in the world of rock and roll, they don’t come much bigger and better than Etheridge. By asking if releasing this album in October was intentional, I’d say yes for two reasons; 1) the aforementioned hot season for big releases and 2) Every October is breast cancer awareness month, and for those of you who may be living under a rock, Etheridge is a breast cancer survivor, who finished rigorous chemotherapy earlier this year. Her brave performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece Of My Heart” on the Grammy Awards last February will stand out as one of the finest live performances in television history. Melissa, still bald from her final chemo treatment, set the stage on fire and opened the doors for many other women suffering from this dreaded disease, and showed that bald can be beautiful. Why does it always take a celebrity to make us feel good or bad about ourselves? I suppose it’s the world we live in today, and pop culture rules. But whether or not Etheridge intended to send a message, she did, and there are millions of women and men waiting in line to thank her.
Melissa Etheridge was born in the heart of the Midwest (Leavenworth, Kansas) on May 29, 1961. About the time Janis Joplin was catching fire, Etheridge was just entering grammar school. After Joplin’s untimely death at age 27 in 1970, it wasn’t long before Etheridge had contracted Joplin fever. To her, and millions of others, Janis Joplin’s music was extremely infectious. Joplin’s music hit Melissa in the gut, as well as her heart and soul. There had never been another like Joplin, and for those who make the comparisons between Joplin and Etheridge, she takes that as the highest compliment. After all, if you’re going to be compared, why not be compared to the best?
Soon after Etheridge graduated high school in 1979, she made her way out to Los Angeles to realize her musical dreams. In 1982, she was discovered by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell while performing at a club in Long Beach, California, and he immediately heard what we all heard by the time Etheridge released her debut album a few years later - a star had been born. Janis Joplin comparisons were running rampant, but to Etheridge, it didn’t matter. Sure, she had the same gutsy rasp to her roll, but she also had one thing that Joplin always seemed to lack, and that was confidence. Thank goodness, Etheridge’s strong survival skills were already intact. She proved she could overcome the comparisons and make her music her own, and her survival skills were never needed more than when she discovered she had breast cancer a couple of years ago. The Grammy performance was a testament to all that was part of her physical make-up.
On October 4, Melissa Etheridge released Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled. In the 17-track set, there were a dozen fan favorites along with five brand new songs. The only surprising omission to the set was the song “Breathe.” It was not only a rock station staple, it was also a fan favorite. Etheridge commented on the album’s tracks and the reasons for her selections by saying “It’s hard to perceive your own hits because you don’t experience them as a radio listener. To me it’s clear what Springsteen’s hits are, what Aerosmith’s are. But my own? I don’t know.”
This collection is superb. From the Tom Petty opener “Refugee,” Etheridge’s raw and raucous delivery is still as prevalent as it was two decades ago. Etheridge explains her choice for this track, “I decided to cover ‘Refugee’ because I wanted a song that spoke to my heart, my mind and my soul, a song about where I was at, something I could share with an audience that I knew could relate to, something that was recognizable but I could make my own. Considering what I’ve experienced recently, I think ‘Refugee’ speaks to it perfectly.”
The album then takes us down a familiar and chronological road of Etheridge’s releases, beginning with her 1988 self-titled debut album. The first single of Melissa’s to make the Billboard charts, in the spring of 1989, was “Similar Features.” At first, the single stalled, but after the success of her second single “Bring Me Some Water,” “Similar Features” was re-released and the album became a huge hit that sold more than four million copies. The other single released and that appears on this compilation is “Like The Way I Do.” Etheridge has a soft spot in her heart for this single. She explains, “I wrote ‘Like The Way I Do’ in the mid-80’s, a couple of years before my first album came out. It was my show-closer even when I was playing the bars. I have to play ‘Like The Way I Do’ last or everything will pale following it. I play that, ‘Piece Of My Heart’ and ‘Meet Me In The Back’, those three songs were the last thirty minutes of my set in the women’s bars in Long Beach and Pasadena. It was also the first original song that someone requested. Usually I would hear someone in the audience say ‘Play that Stevie Nicks song,’ or ‘Play that Bruce Springsteen song.’ That reaction gave me hope that if I ever got a record deal, maybe someone would want to hear my songs.”
Other familiar tracks on this collection include, “No Souvenirs,” Ain’t It Heavy,” the mesmerizing tracks “I’m The Only One,” “Come To My Window” and “If I Wanted To” from the brilliant 1993 album Yes I Am. In 1995, Etheridge released Your Little Secret which spawned the phenomenal single “I Want To Come Over.” This single crossed over many charts to become not only a fan favorite, but a radio-friendly single everybody seemed to relate to in one way or another. Etheridge explains the track, “I wrote the song while I was on tour. I wanted a song where the chorus just hit you right away and the verse was really low, I went back to a memory of a clandestine relationship and the buzz that one gets from it.”
Following the success of the previous self-penned tracks, Etheridge decided to try something new and different. The result was 1999’s “Angels Would Fall” from the album Breakdown. Etheridge talks about the difference of collaborating with someone new. “This song was one of my first collaborations with John Shanks. He brought me a piece of music and I wrote the melody and lyrics over it. We’ve done that a few times now, but ‘Angels Would Fall’ was the first. It was so nice to break out of my routine.”
“Lucky” was on Melissa’s eighth CD of the same name. “The song never got much airplay, but when I play it live, it does something to the audience. They can feel my happiness when I play that song. And they know the ache of it. It describes where I’m at right now more than any other song.” With lyrics such as “I want to drive to the edge and into the sea, I just want to live shockingly,” it definitely explains Etheridge’s battle with breast cancer as well as her loving relationship with partner Tammy Lynn Michaels.
The remainder of the CD leaves us with four new stunning tracks, “Christmas In America,” the aforementioned mind-blowing “Piece Of My Heart” which Etheridge comments “It’s a magical song. You play that song and people go nuts.” That’s an understatement! “This Is Not Goodbye” is a poignant song that was written after Etheridge’s cancer experience. You can feel the sadness and the determination in the moving lyrics and haunting melody. The final track, “I Run For My Life” was a song that was written specifically for the Ford Motor Company’s “Race For The Cure” campaign to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer charities. Melissa’s answer to the final track is “We are all running for answers and to make the situation better.”
Whether or not Melissa Etheridge’s battle with breast cancer has made her life better is only known to her and those closest to her. According to these latest songs and her recent statements, it all appears that she will cherish every bit of her wonderful life as a performer, a mother and loving partner. The fact that she’s opened her heart and soul to others is reason enough to praise Melissa Etheridge for all of the joy she has brought to her fans, and at 44 years old, to a whole new generation.
She sums up the album by commenting “I always thought it was something to aspire to, where you got to a point in your career where you could have a greatest hits album, you did something right.” Believe me, Melissa, you’ve done something very, very right. As a longtime fan, I thank you.
© 2005 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.