"Wow! That\'s the first half of my career," says Melissa Etheridge with an air of disbelief as she assesses the body of work collected on "Greatest Hits The Road Less Traveled," her first hits anthology.
It\'s 17 songs in 17 years, a journey from 1988\'s "Similar Features" - the song that introduced her gritty vocals, aching emotions and magic touch as a rock songwriter to the general public - through newly recorded versions of Tom Petty\'s "Refugee" and the Janis Joplin-associated "Piece of My Heart" and the brand-new "I Run For Life," a song reaching out from her recent experiences as an inspiration for others whose lives have been touched by breast cancer.
It was the performance of "Piece of My Heart" on the 2005 Grammy Awards show that served as notice to the world that Etheridge was indeed ready to embrace the next half of her career. Bald from the chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer that had been diagnosed in 2004, she joyously inhabited the wrenching soul-blues of the song, announcing to the world that she was ready to get going, renewed and recharged. With "I Run For Life," written after Ford approached her to create a song for the Race for the Cure as part of their Ford Cares initiative, she leaves no doubt.
"I wanted to make it personal, climb into people\'s personal emotions and portray a woman who has had breast cancer but is out of it," she says. "The first verse is about a survivor. The second verse is me, my own personal experience - it\'s been a blur since they told me about it. And then I wanted to offer the last verse for you who have not been diagnosed or not known someone yet. We\'re all running for answers and to make the situation better."
But even before the cancer diagnosis, Etheridge found herself at a turning point as an artist and as a person, a point at which a summary look back was called for.
"That\'s how I really look at it," she says. "This is the part of my life where success and rock \'n\' roll were the most important things in my life, where all day long what I would do was write and sing music and play. That has really changed now. What I write about has changed. The themes of the songs of the first 17 years are similar - a lot of betrayal, a lot of aching, a lot of wanting, searching for that right companion and thinking it was, but it wasn\'t. Now, ending with \'Lucky,\' and going \'Wow, I found it!\' I can lay all this to rest. So it\'s a nice marker. That\'s the first chapter."
And what a chapter it\'s been. Asked to name the single key moment of her career, Etheridge is overwhelmed by candidates.
"There\'ve been so many!" she protests, refusing to stick to just one choice. "I\'d have to say one of the biggest was 1989 at the Grammy Awards, performing \'Bring Me Some Water.\' I was so unknown, and the next day I wasn\'t. It wasn\'t huge, but I got a lot of fans from that performance. But is that the key moment? Was the Grammys in 2005 the key moment? Was coming out the key moment? Meeting Chris Blackwell [the Island Records founder who signed her] was pretty key. My first headlining tour, that was, \'Yeah, I made it.\' Singing with Bruce Springsteen! Him saying yes to singing on my \'Unplugged.\' Holy cow! That was a dream come true. \'Some day I\'ll sing with Bruce Springsteen!\' And it comes true."
This album doesn\'t just cover the time of those events, it chronicles a personal journey for Etheridge, a life as dynamic as the music. After opening with "Refugee," it takes a trip from the beginning of her public life through the seasonal rarity "Christmas in America" (a thoughtful look at the issues of a nation at war, released on a Best Buy-sponsored compilation), her recording of "Piece of My Heart" and the brand-new, poignant "This is Not Goodbye."
Along the way, it clearly shows Etheridge\'s development and evolution as an artist, as well as reflecting the transition from a very private person to one whose most sensitive personal matters became public knowledge.
"It\'s exactly that," she says. "It\'s crazy that way - the more I would be truthful, whether I wanted people to share in the process or not, they were sharing in it. It\'s the way of the world. It causes one to mature. You have to look at what you\'re doing. Not only was it going to affect me and my children, but it would be judged on a huge level, and there\'s responsibility to that. If I want to keep making my music on the level I wish to, I need to have a responsibility and maturity come from that. I\'m glad I\'m not 44 and still writing \'Bring Me Some Water,\' writing that pain. Thank God I learned about that."
Choosing the songs for the collection was in some instances nearly as tough as choosing one key moment in her career.
"It\'s hard to perceive your own hits because you don\'t experience them as a radio listener," Etheridge says. "To me it\'s clear what Springsteen\'s hits are, what Aerosmith\'s are. But my own? I don\'t know!
"Some are easy, but when it got around to, well, exactly how many from the second album, I don\'t know - \'The Angels\'? I don\'t know. And in the end deciding to put \'Lucky\' on, which by no means was a hit, I thought it was a hit with my fans, so I made some choices like that. I also know that this, especially after the Grammy performance, could be for people who didn\'t have any of my albums and might be curious. So this would be a sampler. \'You Can Sleep While I Drive wasn\'t a hit at all, but it is one of my best songs and part of me I wanted out there in the world."
Regardless of all else that has happened in the course of the time covered by this album, the very fact that she has a body of work that can be represented like this gives Etheridge pause for thought and for thanks.
"I always thought it was something to aspire to where you got to a point in your career where you could have a greatest hits album - you did something right," she says. "My manager and I have a joke that someday we\'ll pop the cork and celebrate. We never have. It\'s been 23 years since I started, and we say it\'s an ongoing process."