.Melissa Etheridge’s Surprising Connection to Santa Cruz

Melissa Etheridge calls it “one of the finest beverages I’ve ever consumed.”

The two-time Grammy winner loves sipping on Know Label’s cannabis-infused wine, which is made with bud from the Santa Cruz Mountains to give tasters a full-body buzz.

“It’s pretty awesome,” says Etheridge, who’s bringing her Memphis blues sound to the Santa Cruz American Music Festival next weekend. Etheridge loved the beverage—technically called a tincture because it’s only sold medically—so much that she partnered with Santa Cruz resident Lisa Molyneux in the operation. Molyneux, who runs the Greenway Compassionate Relief delivery nonprofit, ferments the wine herself with grape juice she buys from a vintner friend in Santa Maria.

“People misunderstand. It’s not like an edible at all. You’re not going to get all messed up on it. It’s more like an awesome glass of wine that makes you feel really, really good,” Etheridge tells me, chuckling.

The Know Label wine is high in CBDs, but doesn’t contain any THC, so it isn’t psychoactive at all. The drink, which Greenway delivers, varies in price from $25 to $250, depending on the variety and bottle size.

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Etheridge first became a vocal supporter of medical marijuana 12 years ago, after a bout with cancer. To this day, the card-carrying medical user says pot helps her cope with some of the gastrointestinal issues created by chemotherapy.

About a decade ago, Molyneux was on the lookout for celebrities who were brave enough to speak out on the benefits of medicinal cannabis.

Etheridge caught her attention, and Molyneux started going to meet-and-greets with the singer, giving her information about the industry—then more of a grassroots effort—and showing her how to get involved. For her part, Etheridge says she had already been hoping to join the movement. The two became friends after Molyneux purchased one of Etheridge’s guitars to benefit a breast cancer charity. They’ve cemented the bond over time, with Etheridge and her wife Linda Wallem often visiting Molyneux and her wife Syndy Reinecke, who co-own Greenway. Etheridge’s performance in Aptos Village Park on Saturday, May 27 will be her first gig in Santa Cruz County.

Now launching her own cannabis line, Etheridge hopes to help Molyneux re-open Greenway’s storefront dispensary, which closed in the fall of 2015 due to a combination of financial struggles, landlord disputes and zoning issues.

Melissa Etheridge Hollywood star
STAR POWER Melissa Etheridge got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011, a symbol of her success blending activist idealism with mainstream success.

Molyneux, a fellow cancer survivor, marvels at how her friend is unaffected by the spotlight. “She gets off the stage and can be making her kids pancakes,” Molyneux says. “It’s like, ‘Aren’t you the person who was just up there performing?”

For Etheridge fans, the music is not simply a collection of songs. Etheridge has built a relationship with listeners that goes both ways, and more than with most singers, Etheridge’s shows—and her whole catalog, really—sound like a conversation.

That’s a career trademark the singer shares with Bruce Springsteen, who Etheridge calls a “top five” influence on her.

“He’s going so strong still,” Etheridge says of the Boss. “That’s what I wanted. I didn’t need to have the huge hits. As Bruce told me, ‘Hits are fine, but what you really want is longevity. You want to remain relevant and be a voice for a people.’”

Etheridge found fame for impassioned tunes like “Come to My Window,” “I’m the Only One,” “I Want to Come Over,” and “Angels Would Fall.” She’s earned 15 Grammy nominations, and won twice. She also won the 2007 Oscar for best song for “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s global warming film.

It’s easy to see what makes Etheridge such an effective activist. She does indeed seem unchanged by the spotlight, whether passionately belting out rock ballads to thousands of screaming fans or explaining to Dan Rather what it was like growing up a lesbian in the 1970s. That unassuming confidence makes her a powerful voice for the issues closest to her.

“When you don’t have another persona to try to maintain, you can just keep your truth and operate from there, so it definitely keeps you from going crazy, and is much easier to be yourself,” explains Etheridge, who grew up in Kansas. “All these places where you find me being an activist, they’re because they truly do affect my personal life. I’m an LGBT person. I’m a cannabis believer and consumer, and you’re going to find me pushing for that. And health and all those things are very personal to me. I’m able to put that out there. I’m from the Midwest, and I never thought about trying to be someone other than who I am. It’s much more enjoyable that way.”

Etheridge says “the next revolution” will be a rethinking of nutrition and what people do to their bodies by making bad food choices.

As my conversation with Etheridge winds down, I tell her about my favorite live television moment ever. I recall the 2005 Grammy Awards like they happened last night, with Etheridge, who’d just beaten breast cancer, walking onstage—her bald head glistening in the stage lights, her smile proudly beaming into the Staples Center crowd and her soulful alto voice screaming into the microphone. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone look so alive.

Etheridge thanks me graciously and even starts getting choked up, which is rather incredible considering that she mentions a minute later that people still tell her pretty much the same thing I did about once a week.

Leading up until that night in 2005, Etheridge had hardly seen anyone other than close family for three months, and she had undergone a radiation treatment that morning, before going to the awards ceremony. Etheridge, a longtime Joplin fan, confesses that she would have been crushed if someone else had sung “Piece of My Heart” in her place. While planning her performance, Etheridge had considered, for about 30 seconds, wearing a wig, before reminding herself, “Good God, no. That’s so not me.” Clearly, she had no clue that her decision to perform—shiny head and all—would make her a source of inspiration among those suffering from cancer.

For all the confidence Etheridge showed striding across the stage, she says there was a moment immediately before when she was just hoping no one would make fun of her.

“I did not realize the social impact it was going to have,” she reflects. “Sometimes when you do things in a really personal way, just for yourself, they can end up impacting the whole world. Those are special moments you can’t plan.”

Santa Cruz American Music Festival is 11 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28, in Aptos Village Park. Tickets are $25-$1,000. Melissa Etheridge headlines Saturday afternoon. Visit santacruzamericanmusicfestival.com for more information.


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