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Etheridge's live gigs set the stage


If nothing else, Melissa Etheridge is proof you don't have to act like a rock star to be a rock star.

Unlike some musicians, who surround themselves with handlers and assistants and seem to devote their every waking hour to cultivating some spandex-clad mystique, Etheridge is disarmingly plain-spoken. It's almost as if she's too normal for the job.

"But that's kind of what I've always been, a representative of the regular person," she says, laughing. "I really haven't been able to be anything else, or haven't been comfortable being anything else."

Of course, some of that may have to do with the fact that she's been a working musician for as long as she can remember. Unlike a lot of young hopefuls, who worked out their stage moves in front of the bedroom mirror, Etheridge learned by doing.

"I never really did the mirror stuff because I was out in front of people by the time I was 11 years old," she says, over the phone from a tour stop in Knoxville, Tenn. "I played my first talent show, and then was in a variety show, and I'd play.

"I was in my first band when I was 13. On weekends I'd get up and sing and make $25 a night, singing in country bands and dance bands. So I didn't have to make believe in front of a mirror -- I could really do it. And it was the good and the bad of it all. I just said, 'This is what I want to do, this is the work I want to do,' and I just kept at it."

Did she ever. Even though Etheridge made the leap to the majors in 1988, with the release of her debut album, "Melissa Etheridge," it wasn't until the recent "Come to My Window," from her new album, "Yes I Am," that she had anything resembling a pop hit to her credit.

"Before that, I was making records, I was putting them out, and I was touring constantly, making a name for myself as a live performer," she says. "Just sort of taking it step by step, and not giving in."

In the process, she jokes, she played "every single club in America," and while that didn't exactly give her a big audience, it left her with great word-of-mouth and a lot of fan loyalty.

"People know that it's a good live show," she says. "I've got a reputation as being a fun artist to go see. So I can tour everywhere."

So she does, spending as much as a year at a time on tour. But unlike other rock road animals, Etheridge doesn't let the constant travel keep her from maintaining a real life while on the bus.

"When I'm on the road, I find a lot of time to reflect and a lot of time to examine what I've been going through outside of the road and inside myself," she says. Moreover, she feels it's "very important" to make time for the ongoing non-musical aspects of her life.

"I have to take care of my relationship and my friendships and all the things that mean something to me," she says. "I can't just totally let everything go and just be on the road. I really don't want to get lost out here. It gets too monotonous."

Mention to her how refreshingly grown-up that sounds, though, and she just laughs. "Don't let 'em know I'm an adult!" she says, in mock horror.

Not that there's anything about the singer her fans don't already know. In fact, her public persona is so open that when Etheridge announced she was a lesbian in early 1993, most of her fans accepted the news without a qualm.

"It was like, 'OK, fine,' " she says. "And that way, there's really nothing hidden. I'm basically straightforward about everything, and I thought it was important to come out about that, too."

As a result, she hasn't had to worry about people prying into her personal life, the way some of her peers have. "I hang out with or know some [stars] that are constantly hounded, and I don't think I'll ever be hounded," she says. "Because there's nothing to hound me about. It's like: 'Look, this is it. Right here. Here it all is.' "

She laughs. "What you see is what you get."

Just say "Yes"

To hear excerpts from Melissa Etheridge's album "Yes, I Am," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6124 after you hear the greeting.

Melissa Etheridge

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tickets: $27.50 pavilion, $20 lawn

Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets, (410) 730-2424 for information

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