What’s the 4th Street Feeling?
“4th Street is in Leavenworth,” says Melissa Etheridge.
That’s her home town in Kansas, pop. 25,000, known mostly for its prison and Army base.
And it’s the place evoked in the title, and title song, of 4th Street Feeling, the 12th studio album of her singular, 25-year recording career.
“It’s kind of the main drag, starting in the old downtown,” she says of her old stomping grounds. “I remember the first McDonald’s in town there. The town’s pretty small. That’s where we would hang out, the Burger King parking lot, the football games. Everything was on Fourth Street. That’s where we would cruise. And then it turns into Highway 7 that goes out of town to Kansas City.”
That’s exactly where the album opens, with the bluesy, harmonica-spiced “Kansas City.” The scene is set with Etheridge driving in “my old man’s Delta 88,” reliving road-trips fueled on “Lucky Charms, Tic Tacs and Mom’s amphetamines.” Only this time, the woman who left Leavenworth for Hollywood years ago is taking herself — and us — home. It’s a trip to where she’s from. But also a trip to where she’s headed.
There are “all the untold lies of my misspent youth,” as she sings in the funky coming-of-age tale “The Shadow of the Black Crow,” a song in the storytelling tradition of such cherished artists as the Eagles and Bob Seger. There is the demand to “Be Real” (“You can’t manufacture me, because I like it naturally”), a song in which she says she nods lovingly to the sultry, sexy soul of Rufus with Chaka Khan and Sly and the Family Stone. And she voyages into new territories of folky rock with the first single, “Falling Up,” a joyful, upbeat track featuring her spirited recording debut on the banjitar, a hybrid banjo-guitar.
The fuel for this trek is her inner strength and confidence. In part it comes from recognition — 2012 has seen her awarded with a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, and tapped to be honored by the National Women’s Museum of Art in Washington, DC in the fall.
But more so, if it comes from within.
“There’s a certain confidence and assurance I get from all this, knowing that I can keep my day job,” she laughs. “That shows on this album. I am fearless on this. I’m going to have fun. I had to love every note on this album.”
The feeling of 4th Street Feeling is the essence of Etheridge’s journey. It’s not just in her memories, but in her artistic core, in her sound. In her soul. Produced by Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Norah Jones) with two songs produced by Steven Booker (Duffy), and co-produced by Etheridge, this is arguably her most immediate, heartfelt and musically resonant release. It’s also, perhaps not coincidentally, the first on which she has taken the lead guitar role, playing all the guitar parts.
Her playing is sometimes powerful, sometimes playful, matching her vocals, which show off a wider range than ever before, from rock power to slinky soul to heartbreaking tenderness. That all anchors the tight trio in which she’s joined by her regular road mates Blair Sinta (drums) and Brett Simon (bass), with Zac Rae (keyboards) added on several tracks, recording primarily in frisky sessions at the colorful HOB Studios, set in a large house in the hills overlooking the Los Angeles community of Encino.
“Jacquire is a wonderfully talented guy,” she says. “Sweet soul, a man who loves music. Was great to work with someone who loves music like that. We did it quickly, but not rushed. It became more spontaneous and in-the-moment and fresh. Jacquire used maybe eight microphones. Maybe. And the sounds! We pulled out all these different things.”
U.K.-based Booker’s contributions both complemented and expanded on those textures.
“I chose Steven Booker because I felt there was a beautiful English understanding of American roots music,” Etheridge says. “He had worked with Duffy and other artists where I could see and hear his love for rhythm and blues. It was a delight to create tracks with him.”
That she tapped the crucial feelings so readily, so passionately for this album is a happy confluence between the music she’s been making on the road, the music she’s been hearing on the radio and the music that was the soundtrack of those years on 4th Street.
“I remembered when I could put everything I owned into my old Chevy Impala,” she says. “There was freedom. That feeling was very strong in me, so I wrote the song ‘4th Street Feeling.’ I’ve got to tell you the truth: Sometimes I just want to run away. So my time capsule device was to jump into that song, the feeling it was to listen to those old Al Green songs, that feeling when you first heard Tina Turner’s voice. When I realized that feeling was permeating the whole album I thought that it had to have that title.”
It’s not about the past, though, but about what counts in any era, something of which she got reminders right at home.
“It’s simple,” she says, describing the approach to the album. “Simple as in good simple. Organic. I have teenage kids. They know. They’re like, ‘Okay, auto-tune out the door!’ The biggest word they use is legit. They mean it. If it’s legit, it’s organic. And they can recognize it.”
In that regard, Etheridge found herself sharing the delights of music with her kids, both the classics from her youth and the exciting, emerging generation headed by artists from Adele to Mumford & Son. That helped bring her to the next step, or steps, from her last album, 2010’s bracing Fearless Love.
“Fearless Love was very focused,” she says. “I had a concept, (I) wanted to convey about fear and love and what I’d been learning. And I really thought the next one would be this incredibly spiritual oneness, and realized that getting there, the oneness that we’re looking for is actually our whole lives. The story that we tell. That’s what I’m doing, telling my story, and it’s how I hold it and love and feel it. And then I started making music from there, from all angles, no boundaries.”
From the funky soul-blues “Be Real” to the sultry closer, “Rock and Roll Me,” she says, it’s all about the joyful freedom of expressing what’s inside.
“You can hear the influences,” she says. “That’s what we all are. That’s what Adele is, what Mumford & Son are. We’re making the music we are, and watching other people love it. We create from the things that delight us and come up with our picture.”
This picture came into focus quickly.
“It wasn’t so much a sound I wanted, but a process,” she says. “I wanted to play as much as I could, wanted to play all the guitars. Challenged myself to play lead. And I got better. I hadn’t thought people get better. I thought I was as good as I’d get at 30.”
And then there was the banjitar. She knew how to play the banjo, but “never had much of a call for it.” But her ear was caught by Mumford’s use of it, and she’d loved the old Eagles songs that had banjo. And right about then she spotted one in a yard sale and bought it. When she suggested that she wanted to use it on “Falling Up,” she admitted that she was a bit nervous about her chops. Her guitar tech, though, said he had a banjitar — essentially a banjo body with a guitar neck.
“I’ve been through things, but I’m on a journey,” she says of the song. “It’s getting better. I’m going somewhere. That’s where the banjo feeling comes in. Can’t frown and play the banjo!”
In some ways it’s the perfect sonic summary of 4th Street Feeling. It’s at once old and new, classic and daring, a marker on the road that leads from where she’s been to where she’s going. Wherever that may be.
“The Walk of Fame, the Women’s Museum, the milestones, they made me go, ‘I did it!’” she says. “And I’m still doing it. I feel I’m at the peak of it. It’s all I know how to do, so glad I get to keep doing it!”