Melissa Etheridge isn’t exactly what you would call a centralist. The veteran Grammy/Oscar-winning rock stylist has long served as an LGBT rights champion (she is openly gay), breast cancer awareness ambassador (she is a cancer survivor), environmentalist, family advocate and an ardent activist for scores of other causes.
But in reflecting upon her Midwestern upbringing, Etheridge said her views of the world were shaped by being very much by life in the center, culturally as well as geographically.
“I grew up in Kansas,” she said. “Kansas was always this middle ground. It’s wasn’t South, it wasn’t North or East or West. It was just Kansas. My father was a Republican, my mother was a Democrat. It was just this very middle point. I grew up knowing that there are different thoughts and different beliefs. I wasn’t raised incredibly religious, but I was surrounded by people who were. My high school was black and white and we all got along. There were people with money and people without money. There was always this diversity around.
“I always felt comfortable allowing everyone a seat at the table and going, ‘Okay, we all have our beliefs. This room is big enough for all of them.’ That’s how I’ve always approached life, even in my own personal politics. Obviously, being LGBT, everyone knows where I land on that. But I also know that my experience is not everyone else’s. I’m not going to ask for my own personal rights while I’m trying to take someone else’s rights away. That doesn’t make sense.”
Finding a balance from that middle ground comes into play on Etheridge’s 15th and newest studio album, “The Medicine Show.” The album’s songs are highly topical, addressing the opioid epidemic (“Here Comes the Pain”), the courage of survivors from the 2018 high school shootings in Parkland, Fla. (“Last Hello”) and a globally inspired reflection of hope (“Human Chain”). But what detonates these very centered works is the album-opening title song. It serves as literal crash course in what makes Etheridge’s music so enduring. It’s a booming, celebratory blast of rock ‘n’ roll, full of guitar and percussive crunch with her sagely and soulful vocal charge proudly out front.
“I wanted to make my statement and get my emotions out,” said Etheridge. “I was just driving around with my wife and started saying, ‘The Medicine Show, that’s what this is about. The Medicine Show.’ I just came up with that groove and it was so much fun. I went in and recorded it in, like, two hours by myself. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to play this live.’ Even the people who don’t know the song, they jump right in there and sing along. It’s just as much fun as I thought it would be.”
The wider emotional and musical scope explored on the rest of the album played out more gradually during a time when an entire generation of artists began reacting to a radically shifting social and political climate.
“It was 2016 when I started thinking about this record. It was after the election. That kind of knocked me sideways. Along with a lot of us, I looked around going, ‘Okay, what needs to happen here? This politics of division, this inciting, it has to be met. It can’t be met with resistance. You have to open up. There’s got to be a personal stance that one takes. If I want to see more love in the world, I’ve got to be more love. To see more hope, I have to be more hope. I took all this outside cacophony and I pulled it inside and said. ‘Okay, how do I reflect those feelings that are inside of myself?’ I’ll never do any good if I preach to anybody. That’s the last thing we need right now. There needs to be an example. There needs to be light. Everything that I touched on, everything that I was writing about, whether it was opioid addictions or just human kindness, had to come from this personal place.”
If “The Medicine Show” rocks and recedes with the turbulence of the times, Etheridge still approaches music, over three decades after the release of her debut album, with a very centered sense of contentment and gratitude.
“Oh, man. I’ve got the greatest job in the world. I love it. I mean, just the sheer fact of dreams coming true. I can think back to the time I spent playing in bars for tips, so I’m always grateful when anyone knows one of my songs. I have such gratitude every time I step onstage.
“This is just everything I’ve always wanted, you know?”
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 13
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short