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Singer Melissa Etheridge Covers Musical Legends In Her New Album 'Memphis Rock and Soul'


The famed Stax recording studio in Memphis is long gone, but Melissa Etheridge conjures up the place in her new CD, a collection of covers by Stax R&B legends like Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Sam and Dave.


MELISSA ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Now, don't you ever feel sad. Lean on me when times are bad. When the day comes and you're down in a river of trouble and about to drown, hold on. I'm coming. Hold on. I'm coming.

SIMON: Melissa Etheridge - where to begin? She's won two Grammys, been nominated for more than a dozen more and won an Academy Award in 2007 for best original song in the movie "An Inconvenient Truth." Her new collection is called "Me" - we'll ask her to pronounce it - "MEemphis (ph) Rock And Soul."

ETHERIDGE: (Laughter) Memphis so it's got the capital M-E just for my initials, but it's Memphis.

SIMON: All right. And that's to put the me in Memphis.

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, exactly (laughter).

SIMON: What's your feeling for Memphis?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I have such a love, such as sweet love for Memphis. I grew up in Kansas, but when I knew I was going to do this album, when I knew I was going to dive into the Stax vault, I knew I wanted to go down to Memphis 'cause the location, Memphis, was such an important part. I believe Memphis is the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. It was where all those musicians and everybody met - right there. It's where Elvis was inspired. It's where the Appalachian music and the blues music just collided together to create this new, vibrant R&B and rock 'n' roll that was coming out.

And then you had kids that would go to church in the morning and be just filled with the gospel music. And they would run home to listen to the Grand Ole Opry - that hillbilly music. And then those two things would mix together, and all of a sudden they started making this soul music.

SIMON: Let me get out of the chute and ask you about about one song in particular. A lot of people would hesitate to do "I've Been Loving You Too Long."

ETHERIDGE: (Laughter).

SIMON: Because that's an Otis Redding song, right?

ETHERIDGE: That is one of the greatest Otis Redding songs, one of the greatest performances ever.

SIMON: Well, let - let's hear your take, OK?


ETHERIDGE: (Singing) I've been loving you too long to stop now. You are tired, and you want to be free. My love is growing stronger as you become a habit to me. Oh, I've been loving you.

SIMON: OK. That's pretty good.

ETHERIDGE: I just - I love that song, first of all. And whenever I would hear Otis sing it, it just would stop me, and, you know, you get goosebumps. And you - he had such a way. And it's what - it's what soul music was. It's taking that gospel feel and applying it to heartbreak, you know, and that just - that's powerful.

SIMON: Oh, that gospel feel and applying it to heartbreak - that is a great phrase.

ETHERIDGE: (Laughter) I just made it up.

SIMON: Did you really? All right. Well, I'm going to cite you three times and then make it mine, if it's all right on you.

ETHERIDGE: Right on. You can, absolutely.

SIMON: You recorded this in Memphis, right? And what kind of experience was that like?

ETHERIDGE: I recorded it at Royal Studios in Memphis. Now, Stax, the studios that was Stax, burned down in the '80s (laughter). And so it's a museum now, which is a wonderful place that - if you're ever in Memphis, go visit the Stax Museum and the Stax Academy. It's really amazing.

And so I went to the other studio that had - that was around the same time - making music at the same time as Stax was. And a lot of the Stax artists actually recorded there. And it was another old vaudeville theater that had been converted into a studio by Willie Mitchell, who then had Hi Records. And he had Al Green and people, so still this great soul music coming out there. And so I went into the studio. It's still - I don't think they've painted it since 1960-something - and the soul music just dripping off the walls...


ETHERIDGE: (Singing) I got - I got - I got - I got dreams.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Dreams - dreams to remember.

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Don't make me suffer, babe. Don't - don't - don't...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I got dreams - dreams - dreams to remember.

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Don't let me. Don't - I got...

SIMON: When you come out with a project like this, how do you decide whether you're going to make it a faithful and loving recreation of the original or a loving remake in your own style?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I think I had - I had to look at what I was capable of doing and then what I wanted to do. What - when I would hear a song like "I've Got Dreams To Remember" - classic, soulful song, yet how am I going to step into that and deliver this to a new generation, to my fans and say, you know, this is the music that influenced the musicians that influenced me? I want to be myself in it. I want to hold it like it's coming from me, coming from my truth, coming from my heart. And so a lot of them are very close. "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "I've Got Dreams To Remember" - very, very close to the original. It's - there's not much you can do to a perfect song like that. I just had to step up and give the performance of my life, you know, to really...

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, that's all.

ETHERIDGE: You know, that's all.

SIMON: I don't know "Memphis Train."

SIMON: I didn't either.


ETHERIDGE: (Singing) It's the Memphis Train. Come on. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ooo-wee (ph), the Memphis Train.

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) That's right, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ooo-wee (ph), the Memphis Train.

ETHERIDGE: Now, this Rufus Thomas song - Rufus Thomas is - Rufus Thomas was probably one of the first hits of Stax. And he's "Funky Chicken." And he's just crazy. He's - wonderful stories about Rufus Thomas. And what we really wanted was we wanted to make sure we included that Memphis beat, which is that sort of snare-on-all-four beat - you know, that click - that da-da (ph).


ETHERIDGE: It's a very typical kind of Memphis sound. And I also wanted to do something that mentions Memphis because I had been there now for over a week. And I really felt a connection that Memphis had a lot to do with this music. So when we record the song, I have to admit, I haven't a clue what he's talking about - what the lyrics are. Rufus Thomas, I don't know - when you drop your handkerchief on the floor - what that means. I don't know where the Memphis train is or why train number one and two is gone and three, also, but it works.

SIMON: Yeah.

ETHERIDGE: And it's a barrel of fun. And I just wanted to open the album with it because I think it just stamps exactly where I wanted to stand with Memphis.


ETHERIDGE: (Singing) When I drop my handkerchief on the floor, I'm getting ready to fall. When you see me falling down on my knees...

SIMON: Melissa Etheridge - her new album "Memphis Rock And Soul." Thanks so much for being with us.

ETHERIDGE: My pleasure.


ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Ooo-wee (ph), the Memphis train. Ooo-wee (ph), the Memphis train. Come on. Come on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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