Etheridge Has Pride in Her Home Town
by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
The pride in her hometown of Leavenworth and her generous gifts to the schools and organizations earned Melissa Etheridge the highest honor entrusted to only to very special Leavenworth citizens as, on Saturday, May 27, Mayor Jermaine Wilson officially bestowed Etheridge with a key to the City and declared May 27 as “Melissa Etheridge Day.”
Wilson told a crowd of over 100 friends and fans in front of the Leavenworth City Hall that Etheridge, for all the fame and glory she has achieved, she’s never forgotten her roots.
“I’m honored to be here today to celebrate this momentous and joyous occasion,” Wilson said. “It is not often we get the opportunity to be in the presence of a living legend, Melissa Etheridge. Today we are here to recognize and honor a special person. A person who loves our community, a person who gives back to our community, but most of all, a person who never forgot where she came from. “
Fans and townspeople clustered around the corner of Fifth and Shawnee streets, where shop owner Stacy McCowen displayed decorative signs and a freshly painted mural on the side of her building, Candle Queen Candles, honoring Etheridge. The mural became a central spot to for Etheridge to sign autographs and pose for photos with townsfolk and fans, some coming from out of state to celebrate with the two-time, grammy-awarded musician. Etheridge autographed the mural about a dozen cameras captured the moment.
Etheridge has donated thousands to charitable organizations and purchased musical instruments for young people in Leavenworth schools.
Etheridge spoke of the pride she has in her home town, which she said is a welcoming place for its residents and military families from Fort Leavenworth. She said that life in Leavenworth is an atmosphere that encourages people here to be creative and dream big.
Etheridge took a few moments to talk with HeartKC about some relatable childhood memories growing up in Leavenworth.
I used to ride my bike to the Dairy Queen all the time. My favorite was grape ‘Mr. Misty.’ It was only open in the summer.
I got a ten speed bike for, like, my ninth birthday. I played softball in the summertime. We were called the ‘All Stars’ – even though we were terrible.
I remember in high school, we didn’t have the internet or anything like that so the minute we could drive, we would drive. I got my first car at 14 and we would drive around City Hall.
I remember going to the Hollywood Theater and seeing, oh, I don’t know, “The Apple Dumpling Gang.” When the fourplex (at the mall) opened, I saw Star Wars there.
From her 2019 YouTube, part 2 of her 2019 Leavenworth visit, (1) Etheridge said her first guitar was a Stella by Harmony from Tune Shop in Leavenworth, where she said she took guitar lessons from Don Raymond. She bought her first keyboard and synthesizer at Urban Music Store. Dave Hammersmith taught her electric guitar, she said.
“The musicians I played with were really, really good,” Etheridge said. “It reminds me of all the live music I came up in. It reminds me of what I came up in and how I learned to do what I do.” (2)
During a visit recorded on video in 2019, Etheridge related that when she attended Leavenworth High School, she said she was a part of the musical performing group “Chorale” when a change in the teacher of the group asked the students “What name do you have?” they replied that it was “Chorale.” He wanted them to come up with a special different name. After talking it over, Etheridge said, the students came up with “Power and Life.” The school-based performing group is still actively thriving at LHS and still goes by that name today. (3)
Etheridge, who began playing guitar at age 8, and later took piano lessons when she was in high school. Her piano teacher then, Barbara Mathis, lived just a few blocks away from the Etheridge home. Mathis, 82, is still teaching students in her Leavenworth home today. Mathis taught thousands of students through her teaching in the Leavenworth School District, as well as private lessons. She presently teaches a few students, she said. She has two photos of Etheridge proudly displayed in her home music studio.
“She was a serious student,” Mathis said of Etheridge in a recent interview. “She always practiced and came prepared. She really wanted to learn.”
Barbara’s husband, Jim Mathis, retired tennis coach at Leavenworth High School, was close friends with fellow teacher John Etheridge, Melissa’s father. John Etheridge was the Leavenworth High School basketball coach during some of the time Mathis was the tennis coach.
“John was a great guy, a great coach,” Mathis said recently.
Etheridge said she had a somewhat typical attitude about living in a small town as she became an older teenager.
“This is a small town so when I’m growing up I’m thinking ‘I’ve gotta get out and see the world,'” Etheridge said during an interview Saturday, May 27, before the community presentation. “Now that I’ve seen the world, I think this is just such a beautiful, special place. It hasn’t boomed out. You don’t have the interstate near by so you don’t have that through traffic. We have that special by the river, it’s so beautiful.”
Etheridge began her journey away from Leavenworth with a stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston but she decided to leave school and try her luck with the Los Angeles music scene. There, she played small clubs for several years before signing with Island Records in 1986. In 1993, Etheridge came out as gay during a Triangle Inaugural Ball in Washington DC where singer KD Lang and Etheridge addressed a crowd of a thousand. “I’m very proud to have been a lesbian all my life,” Etheridge declared.
Etheridge’s ability to maintain authenticity and connectedness seems to reach into every crevice of her life, from her deeply personal lyrics to her down-home relatable conversations that still take place with her most personal friends back home.
Her 2021 album “One Way Out” includes many of her songs written earlier in her career but never released. Etheridge has said that the title of the album refers to the importance of looking within.
In a post on Etheridge’s Facebook page, Etheridge’s daughter, Bailey Cypher, said that one of the things she admires about her mother is “She’s honest.” Conversing with HeartKC just before her event on Saturday, May 27, Etheridge explained why honesty has lent value to her life and career.
“Because it (honesty) always did work for me. When I was here in Leavenworth and I’m in high school, sort of realizing I’m gay – in the 70’s – it was not talked about. At that time it was wrong, or whatever,” said Etheridge about the greater societal mores at that time. Despite this, Etheridge said her Leavenworth experiences were supportive of allowing her to be authentic.
“Even when I was a little different, I do not remember being bullied. I did not have that experience,” Etheridge said.
After her 1993 coming out, having already pressed several albums and claiming a Grammy nomination for “Bring Me Some Water,” Etheridge went on to not only claim two Grammy wins, but to become a leader and activist for gay rights.
Her home town’s pride was there to support her, she said.
“When I went out in the world and I came out – and was a big celebrity in the world – this town embraced me,” Etheridge said. “This town put a sign up (for Etheridge) and said ‘Yeah, we’re the home town.’ Even today, with the issues we’re having, I’m so proud of this town. I grew up with diversity and people of different economics. You don’t put anybody else down. You raise people up. That’s always the way I’ve felt about this town and the way I’ve spoken about this town. And it’s helped me in the world – be truthful.”
Even with the celebrity, Etheridge never forgot where she came from, reaching out with donations of musical instruments to the Leavenworth schools and the C.W. Parker museum, as well as monetary gifts. She has come back for her own high school class reunions and also to perform at local events, such as Camp Leavenworth in 2021.
In YouTube videos, Etheridge can be seen taking friends on a bus tour of Leavenworth during a 2019 visit, pointing out sites along the way and talking about growing up in the town. As she took the bus tour along the route, she pointed out Buffalo Bill Cody Park and talked about seeing her first live music performance, as a child, attending the Buffalo Bills Days event.
Recently, Etheridge penned a song for the Kansas City Chiefs called Chocolate Cake in honor of Chiefs Coach Andy Reid’s affinity for the dessert. The Chiefs were aspiring to win the Super Bowl at the time, a win they clinched in February, 2023. You can watch her performance of that song at the following YouTube link:
Etheridge’s career has spanned well over three decades, as she performed in a wide variety of venues from small clubs to Madison Square Garden and the Obama White House. She has performed duets with such greats as Dolly Parton, Adam Lambert and KD Lang. She famously performed at the 2005 Grammys, hairless, as she was enduring chemo treatments for breast cancer. She has since been cancer-free. The video of that chill-inducing 2005 Grammy performance honoring Janis Joplin can be viewed on the following YouTube link: https://youtu.be/9FwL_huvYjQ
Etheridge’s career has also included early advocacy for gay rights and support of other gay performers, such as Ellen DeGeneres, whose early television show back in 1995, included a skit in which Etheridge played a character who comically “certified” Ellen publicly as gay.
Etheridge has supported a number of causes over the years, most recently her Etheridge Foundation that states “The purpose of the Etheridge Foundation is to support new scientific research into the causes and effects of opioid addiction.”
On her May 27 visit to her home town, the Leavenworth Rotary Club made Etheridge an honorary lifetime member, noting her distinguished acts of service, that match the Rotary ideals.
The Leavenworth Historical Society also made Etheridge a lifetime member, explaining that others in the future will stand on the shoulders of what Etheridge has accomplished in the present.
“Melissa, you have inspired people to believe in themselves,” Wilson said. “You have empowered people to be themselves. and you have encouraged each and every one of us to not give up on your dreams and your goals. Thank you for being a great example to all of us in the Leavenworth community.”
“This is a special day that has been set aside for you. Today is Melissa Etheridge Day,” Wilson said. Among the accomplishments, Wilson reminded the crowd that Etheridge had earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Home town pride was shining bright Saturday, as people gathered helped Etheridge celebrate her birthday, that was only two days away on May 29. Stacy McCowan presented Etheridge with a cake and Leavenworth’s own The Voice contestant, Daysia Reneau, led in singing Happy Birthday during the celebration in front of City Hall.
Etheridge made the closing remarks:
“Growing up here was so special,” Etheridge said. “How could I forget you? Leavenworth is not only a place that allows dreams but nurtures them. As I travel the world, I meet people from Leavenworth. It is such a pleasure every time I come back here. The supporting of the arts. I’m so proud. You guys have embraced me even back in the 90’s when it wasn’t easy, when social issues and thoughts and blaming the other and that sort of thing is – even today – very much a part of the social conversation. Leavenworth opens its arms to every color, every type, every walk – and believes if you live a good life – if you put that energy forward, you are a welcome here. I will forever be proud to be a citizen and call Leavenworth my home town.”
In a deeply personal song wherein many parents may be able to relate, Etheridge’s lyrics to “Gently We Row” tells a story of discovery about life. The song was for her daughter, Bailey Cypher. “For all the mothers and daughters out there, Gently We Row,” Etheridge says in the video before singing the duet with her daughter.
A longer video of Etheridge’s May 27, 2023 visit is available here, wherein the Leavenworth Rotary and the LeavenworthHistorical Society presented Etheridge with lifetime memberships. (40 minutes):
Etheridge’s memoir, Talking to My Angels, is due out September 5, 2023.
Fans can join the Melissa Etheridge Nation fan club for special access to her digital content, pre-event sales and merch discounts.
Thank you to Melissa Etheridge for generously sharing many of her life moments on YouTube videos which can be found by clicking directly on the links shared here. Credited quotes from these videos are noted with a number in parentheses.
Copyright, Peggy Bair, HeartKC. All original content reserved.