Victory Tour

After high-profile rough spots, Melissa Etheridge is on record as being through with the blues.

March 24, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Legendary author Ralph Ellison called it the "blues impulse" - an artist's inclination to revisit the details of painful episodes in hopes of transcending the drama.

The end of a love affair - broken promises, nights with no sleep - inspires some of the deepest blues. And Melissa Etheridge knows them all too well. If you stripped away the folk and rock elements of her early records, you'd find the most basic American musical expression, a penetrating feeling - real, jagged and aching.

But these days, Etheridge, who will play a four-night stint at D.C.'s 9:30 Club starting tomorrow night, is no longer blue. The pain that overwhelmed the artist after the much-publicized breakup from her longtime partner Julie Cypher has melted away. At 42, the openly gay pop-rock superstar has found "true love" with new wife, actress Tammy Lynn Michaels. And her two children - daughter Bailey, 7, and son Beckett, 5 - are healthy and happy.

This hard-earned bliss and self-assurance permeate Lucky, the singer-songwriter's latest CD and perhaps her most consistent album since her classic self-titled debut from 1988.

"The joy and the passion I'm feeling - it's all on this record," says Etheridge, phoning from a tour stop in Detroit. "The energy comes from life and the decisions I've made."

On Sept. 20, in an elaborate Malibu ceremony, Etheridge and Michaels exchanged vows before 170 friends and family members. The rock star has always been candid about her relationships in the gay and mainstream press. Seemingly happy in early 2000, Etheridge appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the kids, Cypher and singer David Crosby, the children's biological father. (Cypher was artificially inseminated.) The couple split shortly after the magazine cover, and Etheridge detailed the separation in her best-selling 2001 tell-all, The Truth Is ... My Life in Love and Music.

Although the artist's new marriage isn't legal in California, the state allows same-sex couples to unite in a domestic partnership. Which was, for Etheridge, a good enough excuse to throw a "lavish, star-studded wedding." With recent debates over the legalization of homosexual marriage, the longtime champion for gay rights hasn't held her tongue.

"You may not want the wedding in your church," says the raspy-voiced singer, "but it's my right to marry who I want. It's that simple. You can't deny a person's right to love and be with someone. You know, I'm surprised that the debate is in our public forum now. But it's just a matter of time before gay marriages are legal. It will prevail," she says. "That whole argument that legalizing gay marriage will lead to bestiality or whatever - my goodness. That's just unreal and ridiculous."

Etheridge says she won't be using her coming shows as a soapbox; her focus will center on the new upbeat material.

"My whole set list is totally high-energy rock 'n' roll," she says. "I'm about the fun, high energy now. I'm doing maybe two ballads a show."

But fans of such bleeding-heart tunes as "I'm the Only One" and "Bring Me Some Water" won't be disappointed.

"Those songs I have to do," Etheridge says. "I can still sing those dark songs from my soul, but I'm thankful that I'm not there anymore."

The Kansas native hit almost immediately when Island Records released her self-titled debut in 1988, which featured "Bring Me Some Water" and "Like the Way I Do." (In September, three days after Etheridge's wedding, the label reissued the platinum-selling album with a bonus disc of live performances.) Her sophomore set, Brave and Crazy, appeared in 1989, building upon the momentum of its predecessor and selling a swift million. The 1992 album Never Enough spawned the Grammy-winning smash "Ain't It Heavy."

The next year, Etheridge issued her biggest-selling record to date, Yes I Am, whose title put to rest the rumors and speculation about her sexuality. More than 6 million people bought the set, and MTV kept the video for the single "Come to My Window" in frequent rotation. The hit also snagged Etheridge her second Grammy.

"Her music has always spoken for itself," says Chris Parr, vice president of music and talent for Country Music Television. In November, Etheridge appeared on the network's Crossroads program, singing with country legend Dolly Parton. "Melissa's longevity is a huge testament to her talent and music. The common denominator for those with longevity in pop is great songwriting. Melissa gets her emotions across."

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