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Melissa Etheridge on Loving Bruce Springsteen, and the Secrets of Their 1995 ‘Unplugged’ Duet

On Bruce Springsteen’s 71st birthday, Melissa Etheridge explains why she always asks, “What would Bruce do?”

Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP; Greg Allen/Invision/AP

In this century, Bruce Springsteen’s influence has been wide-ranging and easy to find, with artists from the Killers to Lana Del Rey proudly name-checking him. In the post-Born in the U.S.A. Nineties, it was somewhat rarer to hear musicians cite him, but there was one major exception:  Melissa Etheridge, who always declared herself a super-fan, and ended up dueting with Springsteen on “Thunder Road” during her 1995 episode of MTV Unplugged.  On Springsteen’s 71st birthday, here’s what Etheridge had to say about her fandom, and that duet, in a recent interview that appeared on our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast and as an episode of our RS Special Edition video series.

How did you become a Springsteen fan?
Growing up in Kansas, we had a great rock station there called KY102. And in seventh grade, I had mono. I was sick in bed for about two or three weeks. And my parents gave me a radio alarm clock, because we didn’t have a TV upstairs. So I would just say for about two weeks straight, I listened to the radio all day and all night. Just listened to all this rock n’ roll stuff and when they played Springsteen I sat up and what what is that? And then right after that he came out with Born to Run. And of course, the minute you hear Born to Run,  it’s over.

And how did that play into your own work?
I was starting to form my idea of what kind of artist I wanted to be. I had started playing in bands a little bit. I was messing around ,writing my own songs, I had this this desire coming up inside of me and I said that’s the kind of artist I want to be. I want to write songs that make people feel the way he makes me feel. I want to sing with this authenticity. I want to perform like that. And so from then on, it was, “what would Bruce do?”

What’s the story behind the duet on “Thunder Road” on your ‘Unplugged’ episode?
He came to the show and we rehearsed upstairs in this little dressing room. And we go down to for soundcheck, and he goes, “Where’s your band?” I said, “No, dude, it’s just me and you!’ He goes, “You and I are just going to sing it?”  I said, “Yeah, this is Unplugged! It’s just me. I’m just playin’. You know? And he kinda was like, shaking! He hadn’t done [an acoustic tour] yet. And, remember, his Unplugged,  he played with the whole band.  He watched my whole show from the wings. He watched everything I did. And then he came out and sang it with me and it was just great. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, of course.

But I kept messing up on the end. I had just been out out and proud for about a year, so I said I want to sing, “So Mary climb in,” that just really means a lot to me. Right? And so we get to the end, and I would just be so into just staring at him and listening to him, that the line came and I totally blew it. I missed it, messed it up. So we had to do it again. And you’ll see, if you watch the performance, at the very end, I almost blow it again. And I step up and sing,”Mary climb in,” and the camera shot is on him and he turns and kind of laughs ,because I almost blew it again. It’s just a great memory.

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From Rolling Stone US