Staying true to oneself is a lesson that Melissa Etheridge has embraced right up through the release of her latest album, 2016’s “Memphis Rock and Soul.”
While it would be easy to classify it as a vanity project by another rock star looking to pay homage to their influences (which it is), this outing also represents Etheridge’s current mindset.
It’s one that emerged following a 2004 breast cancer diagnosis that turned the Kansan’s world upside down. She took a hard look at the choices she was making, starting with 2007’s “The Awakening,” her ninth studio album.
“Before cancer, I was really concerned with being on the radio and having hit songs and that really drove my music into a kind of stale place. After cancer, I didn’t care anymore because it was about making music that I love and inspires me,” she recalled in a recent phone interview.
“I think that I’ve made some of my best music since then. ‘Fearless Love’ and ‘This is M.E. and even ‘4th Street Feeling’ have all been music that came straight from my heart and from the moment of enjoying and concentrating on my live performances, because that’s where people keep coming back over and over and having that experience. I’ve fallen in love with music all over again.”
If 2010’s aforementioned “Fearless Love” served as an homage to Etheridge’s classic rock influences, the throaty singer-songwriter decided to take it one step further by delving into Stax-Volt, a Memphis-based label whose sound reverberated with a far grittier rock and soul vibe than the smoother and less edgy approach Motown was taking around the same time.
With such a rich vault of material, the 56-year-old rocker wanted to avoid obvious cuts that have been covered ad nauseam. She started out with a wish list of 200 songs before whittling it down to the dozen that made the album.
“So much of what I am now is made up of the music of my past and their inspiration. I know that so much of the way I sing comes from the blues, soul music and R&B and that’s such a big part of rock and roll,” she said. “I even found a song that the Stax people didn’t even remember. It’s called ‘Wait a Minute’ and it was by Barbara Stephens and it’s from the early 1960s. If you can ever hear the original recording, she’s just singing with such grit, and I’m sure Janis Joplin must have listened to her. Those [artists] are the inspiration for the rock and roll people that I looked up to.”
Recorded at Royal Studios, a converted Memphis vaudeville studio built by the late storied R&B producer Willie Mitchell and run by his son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, “Memphis Rock and Soul” was cut in 10 days. Backed by a litany of veterans, including Hi Records house musicians Leroy Hodges and the Reverend Charles Hodges, Etheridge’s style fits hand-in-glove with both the arrangements and the chosen songs.
The proceedings kick off with the obscure Rufus Thomas gem “Memphis Train,” which layers female harmonies and biting harmonica runs by Etheridge, followed by a standout reading of The Staple Singers’ trademark “Respect Yourself (Stand Up).”
Etheridge favorite Otis Redding is represented by a pair of classics — a gut-wrenching take on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and the aching “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”
Best of all is William Bell’s “I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” a tale of regret and sorrow soaked in sweetly understated strings and sublime guitar that is quite a contrast to the more hyperactive reading Billy Idol gave it as a 1986 Top 10 hit dubbed “To Be A Lover.”
Etheridge, for a first tour that followed the release of “Memphis Rock and Soul,” was able to bring out a horn section and backing vocalists to help fully replicate the arrangements of the album. But now she’s back to playing with only her core band.
Of course, that won’t be a bad thing, as fans will get to hear a set that touches on songs from throughout her nearly 30-year career.
And Etheridge will be able to be a bit more spontaneous with her regular band than she could when she brought out the additional musicians. The larger band was just beginning to be able to follow Etheridge when she wanted to switch up something or jam a bit on a song.
“When you have more musicians, there’s more of a need to do a certain arrangement,” Etheridge said. “You’ve got to kind of stick to a certain thing, and I like to be really, really open with what I do. We did about three weeks with the horns and the background vocalists, and by the end I had them sort of trained to ‘OK, watch me, watch me and you’ll know when to go to the next thing because I’ll give you the signal.’ It was good.”
Melissa Etheridge. 8 p.m. $30-$81.50. Crossroads KC. crossroadskc.com