The lyrics start a few seconds before the music kicks in — drums first, and then guitar.
“Let’s all go to the medicine show! High-ho, high-ho! E-I-E-I-O!” Melissa Etheridge sings in her familiar throaty roar on the first track of her new album, The Medicine Show.
It’s about as hard rock as mainstream rock ’n’ roll gets these days, an observation that makes Etheridge, 58, both happy and sad. She loves that her music remains brash and rousing more than a quarter-century since her 1993 breakthrough hit, “Come to My Window,” for which she won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. But the popular music scene has changed so much since then that the category no longer exists.
“They’d put me in Americana now. It’s almost like we’ve given up on it,” she says. “But rock and roll isn’t a genre — it’s a spirit. When I make my music, I’m looking to heal. I’m looking to do what rock and roll did for me: give me … somewhere I can go and think and not feel alone and sort of get the frustrations out.”
It would be nearly impossible to feel alone while listening to The Medicine Show. Press play and close your eyes to be instantly transported to a stadium stuffed to the rafters with fans who are singing along, pumping their fists in the air. Etheridge says she was feeling powerless after the presidential election in 2016, so she began working on an album about love, health, and redemption.
“I’ve been on a journey of understanding that love is really powerful. When you love yourself, you’re healthier; you’re happier. It’s understanding that no one can take your power unless you let them. You can work to change yourself, and that changes the world.”
Etheridge plays the Isleta Resort & Casino in Albuquerque on Saturday, Nov. 9.
The Medicine Show is raucous on some of its 11 tracks and somewhat more subdued on others, the instrumentation always driving and muscular but more emotionally intimate. There are love songs, political songs, and songs about life’s more tenuous moments. With its hard rhythm and its soul-baring chorus, “Shaking” hits a musical middle ground on the album, while the lyrics get deeply personal.
“All my dreams have started breaking,” she sings, pacing her words to echo the stops and starts of a panic attack.
Hold me honey I’m still aching
I’m sorry but I
I’m sorry but I can’t stop
I’m sorry I just can’t stop shaking
The song is about Etheridge’s experiences with anxiety. Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. She credits her cancer-free years since treatment to living as healthfully as possible, which includes diet and exercise, as well as managing stress. “In my journey with my own health, I have come to a clear understanding that my emotional state has everything to do with my physical state,” she says.
Making music was how she kept herself sane during chemotherapy, which she says sometimes made her feel so sick that she wanted to die. But on the days that she could get out of bed, she wrote music and played guitar. Etheridge took to the Grammy stage in 2005, while bald from chemo, to sing “Piece of My Heart” with Joss Stone in a tribute to Janis Joplin. “Ten years ago when you were diagnosed, people thought, ‘That’s it, she’s out of here,’ you know?” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2018. “So I wanted to show people that no, I’ve been through hell. Yeah, this is awful, but I am not dying. I wanted to present myself as, ‘I’m back, I’m not weak, this has made me stronger.’ I just didn’t want anyone to make fun of me.”
Perhaps the most searing song on The Medicine Show is its final track, “Last Hello.” It’s on the slower side, reminiscent of a heavy-metal power ballad, and suffused with grief. She sings:
What started first as confusion
Is turning into revolution
What can I do what can I be
No child should see what I have seen
Etheridge never names a specific tragedy in the song, but the chorus hints at a school shooting, which she acknowledges is what she was thinking of when she wrote it. “I’ve never had that experience. I can only imagine what it was like,” she says.
Leaving the event nameless so that listeners can project their own experience onto the song is in keeping with her lyrical voice. Etheridge is known for penning love songs that anyone can relate to because she doesn’t specify the gender of the object of her affection. In the early days of her career, this could be both a way to appeal to a wide audience and to maintain a sense of privacy about her love life. But in 1993, she decided that being a lesbian was a secret she no longer wanted to keep. Despite the prevalence of homophobia in society at the time, Etheridge came out — and soon thereafter released an album called Yes I Am. Many people saw that as an assertive act of self-definition, although in 2018 she told Billboard that she never intended for the title to reflect or confirm her sexual preference.
“One hundred percent truthfully, I had written the song ‘Yes I Am’ originally for the album before that, and it’s a love song,” she told Billboard. “It’s about saying positively, ‘Yes, I am that lover. So, I thought it would be a great song to name an album after. Then, I realized when I came out right before the album came out ... ‘Oh, that is going to be interesting. That is going to be really interesting.’ ”
In 2019, when it’s no longer a scandal for a popular musician to be out of the closet, people still frequently thank Etheridge for her bravery. “Not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t say something to me about it. I love when people say I’m the OG, the original gangster.”
“What I remember is that I didn’t want to hide anymore. I wanted to be a whole person. What I love is that being gay is a flavor now, a color in people’s Crayon box. It doesn’t define you.” ◀
▼ Melissa Etheridge
▼ 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9; doors open for 21+ show at 7 p.m.
▼ Isleta Resort & Casino, The Showroom, 11000 Broadway SE, Albuquerque
▼ Tickets are $35-$55; check availability at tickets.holdmyticket.com