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 said 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.”
Etheridge, who will perform Tuesday, Aug. 8, at the Egyptian Theatre in Boise, has notched five platinum-selling albums in a catalog that now boasts 13 albums released since 1988. She very clearly demonstrated her love of soul music on her current album, “Memphis Rock and Soul,” released last year. She covered a dozen songs from soul music’s golden age of the late 1960s/very early ‘70s. 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.
“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 works 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 a backing band for Stax Records, the other legendary Memphis label that was home to such legends as Redding, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes.
“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.”
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” took all of 10 days to record, which speaks to the musical chemistry Etheridge and the musicians enjoyed. What took longer was deciding what songs would go on the album.
Etheridge, who figures to include a sampling of “Memphis Rock and Soul” in her live shows this summer, started with a list of about 200 songs and started narrowing the field from there.
The criteria was not ‘Oh, what are the most famous ones and I’m just going to do those,’” she said. “It was what songs can I get into? What songs can I sing and get into and get behind and feel personal with? And then what songs have a groove that I want to play and get into – and what songs have meaning.”
Etheridge admitted that she had some hesitations about doing a Memphis soul album, and realized there was no point in trying to replicate the vocal performances on the original songs. She could only do the songs justice by being herself.
“There are some of the greatest singers of all time singing (these songs), a little Otis Redding, a little Mavis Staples, yeah, there are a couple of artists that you don’t get any better than that,” Etheridge said. “And even some of the writing, tackling ‘Respect Yourself’ and really getting in there and getting into the songs, these artists and this music was such an influence that my music, that I knew if I just approached it from just a sincere, respectful place – like OK, I want to do these songs and I just want to do the best I can coming from myself -- if I stayed with that, hopefully I couldn’t go wrong.”
8 p.m. Aug. 8, Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St., Boise. $45, $75 and $100. Ticketfly.