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Melissa Etheridge Biography

Two-time Grammy and Academy Award-winning artist Melissa Etheridge remembers Johnny Cash coming to her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas to perform at the prison when she was 8 years old. She could see the imposing institution from her backyard, and Cash’s presence in her neighborhood felt electric. Four years later, Etheridge performed in a variety show at Leavenworth’s women’s prison. 

“When I was a kid, I used to think prisons were a place of great entertainment,” she says with a good-natured laugh. “These days, I think about the power of rehabilitation. Many people in prison have experienced trauma in their youth and are living with that. Music can make a difference with rehabilitation. It has the power to help people work through their feelings.”

Etheridge recently came home and performed at Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility, which is now the region’s only women’s prison. Now, on legendary Sun Records, Etheridge releases the new live album, I’m Not Broken, out July 5th. She arrived with healing intentions, gifting the residents with a full-production concert. She also took the time to learn some of the residents’ stories, which inspired her to write the uplifting new song, “Burning Woman.” The creative journey has been filmed for an accompanying Paramount+ documentary.

Prison leadership, including Warden Gloria Geither, was fully cooperative with the project. No limits were imposed on Etheridge’s set, including content and duration. They also allowed the production company to set up a full concert stage in a grassy area right in the middle of the residents’ dorms. “It was a beautiful road to make this happen,” Etheridge says. “I was so impressed by Warden Geither: she has done wonders for Kansas.”

Five prison residents wrote their personal stories in letters, and Etheridge met with them face to face in the correctional facility’s library. “The residents wrote about their pasts in a way that was like, ‘this is how I got here.’ It was cathartic, and I really saw them grow,” she shares.

On the day of the show, when Etheridge and her band did their normal pre-set fist bump gathering, she burst into tears. “I am not a crying person. I was like, ‘how I am going to get through this?’” she recalls.

She curated a set based on her meetings with the residents, and performs rousing versions of her mega hits, “I Want to Come Over,” “Come to My Window,” and “I’m The Only One.” I’m Not Broken features crisp fidelity—it was mixed by Vance Powell (Chris Stapleton, Wanda Jackson, Taylor Swift)—and rawly emotionality. Between songs, Etheridge’s stage banter is humble and heartfelt, and the 2,500 residents’ reactions are boisterously enthusiastic.

Etheridge opens with the crunching heartland rocker “All American Girl,” from her breakout record, Yes I Am. It’s an anthemic, earned wisdom song that sends the powerful message: every woman at the concert is just an American girl. Etheridge also performs the ultra personal “Shadow of a Black Crow,” which she wrote for her son, Beckett Cypheridge, who succumbed to opioid addiction in 2020. “I was about to break down when I shared that story, but when I looked up, I saw these women making heart signs with their hands. It was beyond healing,” she says.

The album’s emotional centerpiece is the debut of “A Burning Woman,” a song inspired by her correspondence with the residents. It’s a stirring pop rock song with a fist-pumping chorus and goose bump-inducing breakdown where Etheridge and the residents engage in call and response refrains, including the chant “I’m not broken.” “I wanted to write them a hopeful song. I know I can’t save anyone—I couldn’t save my son—but I can hold a light to these people and say you matter,” she says. 

Releasing I’m Not Broken on the label that issued Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” is a career highlight for Etheridge. She recalls that when she visited Memphis on her first tour in 1988, the first thing she did was visit Sun Records. “I am beyond honored to put my name in there with legendary Sun Records,” she says. 

Etheridge has worked toward this project since the 1990s. When asked about the most meaningful part of the experience, she recalls a moment in the film when she was performing the newly-written “A Burning Woman.” “The camera shoots up over the crowd and shows the residents pounding their chests chanting ‘I am not broken,’” she reminisces. “To help people see their own inner strength and light as a thrill.”

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