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Former Avalon singer on coming out, getting ousted and where he is today

Michael Passons was founding member of CCM supergroup known for ‘Testify to Love’

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Michael Passons, gay news, Washington Blade
Michael Passons today. (photo courtesy Passons)

Fans of the Christian pop group Avalon always wondered why founding member Michael Passons resigned abruptly in 2003 and then seemed to drop off the face of the earth.

There was talk of a solo album but none materialized. The official word was that he was “moving on to other things.”

The group had had a wildly successful run. Founded in the mid-’90s, Avalon released its self-titled debut album in 1996 on Sparrow and four more (“A Maze of Grace” in 1997, “In a Different Light” in 1999, “Joy: a Christmas Collection” in 2000 and “Oxygen” in 2001) as well as a hits collection with new material (“Testify to Love: the Very Best of Avalon”) in 2003 racking up 19 No. 1 singles on the Billboard gospel charts, two RIAA-certified gold albums, six Dove Awards, an American Music Award and three Grammy nominations. 

Initially there was a blond male and female singer and a brunette male and female singer to round out the foursome in ways that were both visually and sonically appealing. There was regular turnover in one of the “female” slots but Passons, Janna (nee Potter) Long and Jody McBrayer formed the group’s backbone all through its early and most successful years. 

After years of silence, in September, Passons came out as gay on Josh Skinner’s “Jonah and the Whale” podcast and said he was fired from the group for declining to continue with “reparative” therapy. The podcast generated significant media buzz and was aggregated in mainstream outlets like Billboard and People.

Though candid and forthcoming in the podcast, there was more to the story. Passons, a 54-year-old Yazoo City, Miss., native, was chatty and candid in a 45-minute phone interview from his Nashville home on working in the CCM (contemporary Christian music) bubble, hiding his sexuality for so many years, why he opted to come out now and about the Dove Award he nabbed from Whitney Houston at the 1998 ceremony. His comments have been slightly edited for length.

Avalon in 1997. From left are Nikki Hassman-Anders, Jody McBrayer, Janna Long and Michael Passons. (photo by Paul Elledge; vintage promo material via Sparrow/EMI)

WASHINGTON BLADE: It was great to hear the podcast. It felt like you’d just kinda vanished. 

MICHAEL PASSONS: I understand that people would see it that way because you’re just kind of out of the public eye when you’re not making music, not putting music out and doing interviews, and I had not done any of that pretty much in 17 years. And I didn’t really expect this podcast to get the attention that it did get. It was a bit of a surprise to me that there was so much of an interest in a 17-year-old story.

BLADE: Why did it feel like now was the right time? How did it come about?

PASSONS: It wasn’t some calculated move, I was approached by a friend who introduced me to Josh Skinner who has a podcast Jonah and the Whale and said would you like to be a guest? This particular podcast deals with an underwater moment in your life and I had previously had conversations with my family just a couple months earlier, just about my life and the truth of my life so I thought, “Well now is the perfect time,” so it really wasn’t planned out far in advance. An opportunity landed in my lap and I decided to tell the story. 

BLADE: Had you been approached before?

PASSONS: Well, I’ve been pretty under the radar. I’ve been traveling the last 15 years with another Christian group, but only in the band. I play keys for Point of Grace. I wanted to keep my foot in the water … but I didn’t want to be the front guy … so I really hadn’t been approached by journalists at all until now.

BLADE: You tell in the podcast about how they came to your house for a meeting in 2003 and this all came to a head. How had they known you were gay in the first place? What led up to that meeting?

PASSONS: Well at that point I was 38 years old, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t dating, (so) rumors begin to swirl when you have that type of scenario and we had discussions about it several years before. So that’s when … they said to me I needed to go to therapy. It really was in 2002 that they wanted me to go to reparative therapy or at least go see a counselor or some guy who said his credentials were counseling gay people. So I did that to appease them but I knew it was a fruitless effort, and as I say in the podcast, that didn’t last very long. I told them I wasn’t going back to that. It had been a conversation for about a year or so before 2003. 

BLADE: Did you have a pretty good relationship with them otherwise? 

PASSONS: Well over the course of the eight years we were traveling together, I saw those people more than anyone else. Our schedule was so demanding and we toured almost nonstop. … So we did at the time have this family-type relationship but … groups often have a shorter shelf life than solo artists because there are multiple people with multiple goals and aspirations and so unless all four of us aligned, there were always going to be these times where one wants to do a solo deal or they think we should do this or go in this direction and so we kind of started growing apart in our vision. Jody and Janna wanted to do solo records and I thought that was something that was going to fracture the group and our brand and that did cause some tensions because the other two members really wanted to focus our efforts on the Avalon brand because that’s what was familiar to everyone. So over the years we became not as close and then of course you add something like this which kind of draws a line and you have to choose what side of the line you’re going to be on.

BLADE: Bear with me a sec, but I’m going to read you Jody’s quote to CCM Magazine in April, 2004 when he said: “We had a meeting at Michael’s house one day and he told us he was going to move on to other things. We sat and cried and felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us. Things had felt great with the new group and Michael seemed to get along and blend vocally with (then-new member) Melissa (Greene) really well. But Michael had been with us from the beginning and just felt it was time for him to do something else. It’s weird but since his departure, it seems everyone is looking for some scandalous thing to have happened there. It makes me just want to say, ‘Look, I’m sorry to disappoint you that we don’t have some juicy gossip or ‘Dynasty’ episode happening here.” Based on what you shared in the podcast, that was a gross mischaracterization of how it went down. Did you read that at the time? How did it make you feel?

PASSONS: At the time the record label and management held really right reins on us because they created the group, it was their idea. They wanted to find a group that was already in existence that was two guys, two girls. They couldn’t do it so they said, “Let’s just put one together,” so we never felt like we had ownership of much. … So when management and label say, “This is what you are to say,” it became kind of like a bullshit fest at that point. You just gotta stick with the story and that’s what Jody was doing, he was sticking with the story he was told to say. … That was just the way they chose to handle it at the time. … Interestingly enough, Jody reached out to me after the podcast aired and we had not really talked in 17 years other than bumping into each other in a restaurant and saying a quick hello. We met for about an hour we met at a park here in Nashville and just walked around and he apologized profusely and said his heart was broken when he was listening to that podcast. He was very sincere and I  accepted what he had to say and I feel like our relationship has actually — there was some definite closure there as far as what I’d been feeling all of these years and so that was a good thing that came out of this and I’m glad he reached out to me. 

The Blade invited McBrayer to comment. In response to the question, “Did you feel muzzled by the label?” he sent this response: “Absolutely muzzled. However I would have never ever said anything to hurt Michael’s reputation. We were asked for years about what happened and myself and my family refused to say anything that would put Michael in a bad light. We were given a statement and told to go with it. We did everything we were told at the time. … Michael knows I love him and hate how all of it went down and how he was treated by the industry. I’m so thankful he’s happy and grown beyond it all now. I will continue to protect him. He will always be family.” 

BLADE: Was there any truth to what they were saying? Had you been considering a solo album?

PASSONS: No. I know my strengths and my strength was not as a solo artist. …  I enjoyed the team mentality of a group. … I think fans and people outside the industry took the press release at face value but people inside the industry heard pretty quickly what had really happened. Gossip and rumors spread really quickly around Nashville so I just thought, “OK, I’m gonna just start life No. 3 here.” (chuckles)

BLADE: A few other big CCM artists eventually came out like Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz. Did you follow that or ever compare notes with them?

PASSONS: I don’t know either of those artists personally. I’ve never really interacted with them. I think we did a show once with Jennifer years and years ago but it was just mainly, “Hello, nice to meet you.” I applaud them for living their best life and telling their truth but I just never felt like mine was necessarily a story that needed to be told. I wasn’t a solo artist. I would get recognized occasionally. People would say, “Oh, you’re that guy who was in that group,” but I would say 80 percent of fans just knew me as the blond guy. So I didn’t feel like I had tons of name recognition or that my story mattered. But in the last few years, I wanted to be more truthful with my family so that’s really where all this came out of.

BLADE: Did anybody else from your CCM days reach out besides Jody?

PASSONS: I’ve received tons of texts and Instagram messages from friends from home, friends from college, fans, strangers. As far as the industry, some people that I haven’t seen in a while. It was very interesting. Amy Grant texted me and told me she listened and thought my story was beautiful in the way I told it and graceful and I appreciated that. Susan Ashton reached out and I haven’t seen her in years. She was very encouraging. She said, “You are seen and heard and loved.” Everything has been overwhelmingly positive.

BLADE: Did you get to know the other artists very well or have much interaction on the multi-artist tours you did like “Emmanuel” or “My Utmost”?

PASSONS: Yeah, we had a lot of time to just hang out, especially on the bus. You’re traveling late at night and everyone’s wired so you’re staying up and visiting. But we were really new artists at that time and we were thrown into a mix of all of these people that were our mentors, our heroes. We were fans of theirs and now we’re all of a sudden peers, just because of how Avalon came together. Our very first tour before we even sang a note on a record was “Young Messiah” in ’95. We had just come together weeks before and just had enough time to record one Christmas song so that we could sing that song on that tour and there we were next to 4 HIM and Point of Grace and Steven Curtis Chapman and Larnelle Harris and that was mind-blowing to be with all these great artists. But yes, everyone was very welcoming had lots of encouragement for us and advice and I actually really enjoyed those tours.

BLADE: I saw you guys once with Twila Paris. What was she like?

PASSONS: That was our first tour (the “Where I Stand Tour” in 1997). We did Young Messiah that Christmas and then we did our record, then we toured with Twila. We were definitely getting our feet wet just seeing how this industry was going to work … how we were gonna mesh as a group  because we were thrown on stage and we had to find our blend. Live, It’s one thing to be in the studio and be mixed and blended but to sing live, the Twila Paris tour was really just where we began to hone our craft as a group and so yeah, that was wonderful. I had many good experiences wth that tour. We did a spring tour and a fall tour with Twila and it was a long tour but we definitely leaned a lot. 

BLADE: Is there anybody in CCM who struck you as markedly different from their public persona?

PASSONS:  I feel like everyone would be a little different than what you perceive them to be because you only see a very structured view of them by the PR department of the record label. I really enjoyed getting to know Sandi Patty because when you listen to her music, you just don’t pick up on the edge that she has. She has this great sense of humor that’s a little edgy. I don’t know, my image of Sandi Patty was that she was always walking around in some state of meditation or sitting around in a prayer circle because when you’re growing up you just think of someone in such a reverent way because you respected their music so much and she was just she a cut up, she kidded around, she invited us to her home in Indiana at that point just to hang out with her family and I just I enjoyed seeing a whole different side of her. She’s a very strong personality, a strong woman and listening and singing along with her records, it was just good to see the other side of her. 

BLADE: What have you been living on all these years?

PASSONS: I play for Point of Grace and also a friend of mine in town, an attorney and I actually work with her in her law practice and of course being friends with the boss, you can leave anytime and so I’m free to travel whenever I need to and want to so that allows me to hang out with Point of Grace and go where they go. 2020 has been interesting. Since March, we’ve only had two shows and they were very small, so it’s been really interesting year for sure.

BLADE: What denomination did you grow up in?

PASSONS: Southern Baptist. A little country church in Mississippi.

BLADE: Are there still elements of Baptist or evangelical theology you struggle with? Queer or otherwise? 

PASSONS: I’m past struggling with it. Of course, it’s something I think about often but I don’t struggle with it any longer. … I’ve definitely got a different view of spiritualism. I don’t consider myself religious but I do believe in God and so I do have a spiritual life but it just doesn’t involve organized religion and that’s just where I’ve landed.

BLADE: But do you still believe the Christianity basics — Jesus died for our sins and rose on the third day and so on or is it a broader thing for you?

PASSONS: It’s a broader spiritual thing and like I said in my previous interview, I’m just in this place of my prayer to God is show me what is true. I’m not gonna close my mind to anything, I’m not going to say, “Oh this is what I was taught and I don’t believe that anymore,” I just want to step back and rebuild all those boxes, rebuild what my spirituality is, kind of like just implode it to ground level and let’s start again. I was taught by very well-intended people. All my Sunday School teachers in that little church, they didn’t have any malice, they were well-intended people teaching what they believed. We were spoon fed, so at some point in your life you have to just decide of all that information you took in, what do you really believe? I had to get to the point where I was OK disagreeing and not believing some of the things I was taught. it wasn’t disrespectful to those people, I just have to find my own way. 

BLADE: Do you think the conservative, white evangelical world will ever become openly accepting of LGBT people? Is it a lost cause or could it be a whole different story in another generation?

PASSONS: I think there is hope. I’ve seen so much progress in Christian circles just in my lifetime that I never thought I would see. It’s pockets, it’s not widespread, but … I think there is hope. A lot of things used to be justified with scripture that they eventually came around on. (Author) Peter Gomes calls it “the last prejudice of the church.” … After I left, Avalon recorded a song called “Orphans of God,” which I thought was interesting that they were singing it because I was definitely an outcast to them. But now my friend (out country singer) Ty Herndon and Kristen Chenoweth are going to cover it for a Christmas release as a duet and they asked Melissa Greene and I to sing backing vocals on it so now it will take on a whole new meaning. It was a really nice, full circle moment. 

BLADE: Did you keep up with what Avalon was doing much after you were kicked out?

PASSONS: No. It would have put me in a bad headspace. 

BLADE: Have you had many boyfriends? Are you in a relationship now?

PASSONS: I am. I’m with a wonderful guy now and it’s going well.

BLADE: Not married though?

PASSONS: No, not married (laughs). 

BLADE: How long was it before you were comfortable dating guys? 

PASSONS: It took me a while, because when all that went down, I internalized a lot of things and I thought, “Well this is my fault,” type of thing. It really took many years for me to just work through all the junk and work through that cloud in my head and so it wasn’t like some big unleashing. It wasn’t like I left Avalon and just started living my best life, it definitely took awhile to repair the hurt that happened from those several years when Avalon was ending and all the things I went through at that point.

BLADE: Do you know of other LGBT people in CCM who are not out?

PASSONS: Yeah, I do. I feel for them because I know that panicky feeling I used to have, that someone might catch on. … But I think a lot of conservative Christians might be naive as to how many people are gay or bi in their church. You learn from a very early age to be a good actor. 

BLADE: Who was your favorite Avalon producer to work with?

PASSONS: Brown Bannister produced most of the records when I was in the group. He’s, you know, such an icon in our industry and I have so much reverence for him and so much respect, so it was an honor to work with him. He actually brought out the best in me. There was something about just his people skills and he was just so kind and thoughtful in how he spoke with you and guided you through the recording process. He just took the time, even just to find the right microphone for me, because the mic in the studio can make a world of difference. I remember going through five or six mics before we found the right one. A lot of producers are just like, “OK let’s get this going, all right that’s great on to the next one.” He just took time to make it right and I appreciated that.

BLADE: How long did it take to make those albums on average?

PASSONS: When it came time to record, we would try to just block off weeks where we would just go in there and do vocals, vocals, vocals vocals and really mainly weekdays because we would go out on the weekends and do one-offs, you know, weekend dates here and there. So we wouldn’t obviously do a new record in the midst of a tour because we’d want to tour the new record but during our one-offs we would get in there and try to get in it done and probably over the course of a month and a half, two months, we would have everything done. 

BLADE: How involved were you all with the vocal arrangements? I always loved that outro and all those layers on “We Are the Reason,” for instance. How did you come up with all those intricate lines?

PASSONS: We had a great vocal vocal producer named Michael Mellett and he had been a studio singer in Nashville a long time and had toured with Billy Joel as a background singer. He would come in and help arrange our parts and he was amazing at it. And I remember he did work on our Christmas record and I remember that outro those alternate melodies that he helped us come up with, I loved that too. I felt like that really updated the song. It’s interesting because when we did it it was 20 years old and now it’s been 20 years since we did it, so it needs to be done again now. But it was my favorite song growing up. I used to sing it with an accompaniment tape at my little country church when I was a kid. 

BLADE: Yeah, I love it too. Did (songwriter) David Meece ever say anything after you guys cut it?

PASSONS: Indirectly. I think he might have said something to Brown but we heard that he liked it.

BLADE: Who’s a celebrity who would exemplify your type?

PASSONS: (laughs) My type, wow. I’m definitely attracted to someone who is confident but not cocky, someone who has sensitivity but is not overly sensitive, someone who’s just confident in themselves, that’s a big attraction to me. If I were to throw out a celebrity I see a lot of those qualities in, and maybe I’m wrong, but someone like Bradley Cooper. 

BLADE: Did you guys in Avalon have any say in choosing singles?

PASSONS: We were included in conversations but I feel like ultimately the label got what they wanted. There’s one little battle that we won and in retrospect not just one, but I just remember this instance, where the label disagreed with us about what we should call our second record and had we listened to the label, we probably would have sold a lot more. They wanted us to call it “Testify to Love” and we had no idea when we were naming the record and about to release it that that would be the one song that Avalon would be known for or that it be our biggest song ever. We thought “A Maze of Grace” was such a clever title. They disagreed but they let us do what we wanted. But who knew “Testify to Love” would become such a huge song for us? 

BLADE: Was (Sparrow president) Bill Hearn around much?

PASSONS: We would see him periodically and even his father Billy Ray, who started the company, they’re both deceased now, but they were very approachable. They weren’t always in our meetings because we were more with A&R and publicity and stylists but when they were around, they were very approachable, very hands on.

BLADE: When you win a Dove Award, did you each get one or just one for the group?

PASSONS: At the ceremony, just one is given but then they mail three more to you like a month later.

BLADE: Where do you keep yours?

PASSONS: I have a little study/office that I’m sitting in right now. I just have them on a shelf along with some pictures and mementos and things I like to keep out. The interesting story about one of our Dove Awards is our first Dove Award for new artist of the year and that was in 1998 I believe, and we got new artist of the year at the 29th Dove Awards and that was the year that Whitney Houston performed with Dottie Rambo … and we were backstage after we won doing a press junket so I missed her performance and I’m a huge Whitney Houston fan, like I would rival anyone else saying they’re a huge Whitney Houston fan. (laughs) She’s pretty much my all-time favorite artist. So after the show some press people wanted to take a photo of Whitney holding a Dove Award. She didn’t have one so Jody was standing close by with his and they said, “Can we have your Dove Award for a picture,” and so Whitney took our Dove Award and had her picture made with it and of course that was the only one we got that night and our manager said, “OK I’m gonna take that to the office and hold it ’til the others come in and you all can come by and pick them up,” and so before he could get to it, I got that particular one and took a Sharpie and made a mark on the bottom of it and the day that our manager said, “OK you can come by and pick up the Dove Awards they’re all in,” I was first one in there and I picked them all up and looked for the one I made the mark on because I wanted the one that Whitney had held. So I’m holding it right now, I’ve got that one in my hand and I always think of Whitney.

BLADE: Who were your favorite CCM acts growing up? Or did you listen to more pop?

PASSONS: I listened to a lot of pop and and country. My family is from a rural Mississippi town so country music was really most of what was on the radio and I love that old ’70s country. I still listen to it just because it has a lot of good memories. But I didn’t really know there was such a thing as CCM other than, you know, like Bill and Gloria Gaither-type stuff until I was in high school and someone handed me a tape of “Age to Age” by Amy Grant and that just lit a fire in me like I had no idea this type of thing existed, this is what I want to do. And of course I’ve just been — I was a fan of Amy Grant from that day on and she was definitely a huge influence in the way I would sing music, the way I would write music, I would listen to interviews of her and I would just — she was a great teacher in that respect of just knowing how to respond to questions, how to react to people, just her demeanor, how she handled herself, she was definitely a role model.

BLADE: So that must have been mind-blowing to work with her producer (Brown Bannister) all those years later.

PASSONS: Yeah, definitely. And then her text last week, yeah, that was a nice moment.

BLADE: Why didn’t the more progressive Christian denominations ever have their own version of CCM? There are a few fledgling queer gospel singers out there but nothing like the machine that CCM was. Maybe they didn’t care as much if their kids listened to Metallica or whatever? 

PASSONS: I think your theory might hold some weight, just that the conservative Christians were looking for an alternative for them and their families to listen to. One thing I think there probably wouldn’t have been a market in the liberal circles to sustain the industry, they wouldn’t have purchased the CDs and the music. It was the conservatives who made this a business and the Christian music business is a business. You have to be making money to be in CCM, that’s the dichotomy that I’ve always wrestled with. CCM depended on Becky, and I’ll tell you who Becky is. Becky is the pseudonym for their target audience. So any meeting we were in, it was always asked, “What would Becky buy, would Becky like  this song?” And Becky is a 20-, 30- or 40-something conservative Christian female and she was the target audience because she was the one buying the CDs and the tapes and downloading the music and so I think that’s maybe why the conservative church has kind of a market on CCM music.

BLADE: Is she related to Karen?

PASSONS: (laughs) That’s funny. If they’re not related, they’re probably best friends.

BLADE: When your bandmates came to your house that day, did it feel like it was coming from a place of love and concern or did it feel like a power play? Like they were trying to oust you?

PASSONS: It did feel like a power play. There were some very complicated personalities in the group and so it definitely — I did not feel much love that day. 

BLADE: To me, it was like when Florence got kicked out of the Supremes. They could go on and do whatever they want, but without Florence, it wasn’t the Supremes. Without you, it wasn’t Avalon. The one female singer didn’t matter so much because she always changed. That was like the new season of “Charlie’s Angels,” you always knew she would change. But when you left, it was never the same.

PASSONS: I appreciate that, I’ve heard several say that and it’s always good to know that my contribution is something that was missed. 

Michael Passons (left) with his Avalon bandmates in a photo from their 1997 ‘A Maze of Grace’ album. With him from left are Jody McBrayer, Nikki Hassman-Anders and Janna Long. (photo by Paul Elledge; vintage promo material via Sparrow/EMI)
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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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Legalization trend continues as Nat’l Cannabis Festival kicks off

D.C.’s 420 Week runs April 16-24

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National Cannabis Festival (Photo by Doug Van Sant; courtesy NCF)

The sixth annual National Cannabis Festival kicks off in D.C. on April 16 as the nation continues to see advances in legalizing cannabis, particularly for medical uses. 

Just this week, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed HB 933 and SB 671, to provide numerous operational improvements to the state’s medical cannabis program, including eliminating the requirement that patients register with the Board of Pharmacy after receiving their written certification from a registered practitioner. 

“These legislative improvements will bring great relief to the thousands of Virginians waiting to access the medical cannabis program,” said JM Pedini, NORML’s Development Director and the Executive Director of Virginia NORML. “We hear from dozens of Virginians each week who are struggling with the registration process and frustrated by the 60-day wait to receive their approval from the Board of Pharmacy,” Pedini added.

There are more than 47,000 program registrants, with an estimated 8,000 applicants still awaiting approval. 

The new laws will take effect July 1. Until that time, patients will still be required to register with the Board of Pharmacy in order to shop at one of the state’s ten operational dispensaries. After July 1, patients who would like to receive a physical card will still have the option to request one by registering with the Board of Pharmacy.

The changes in Virginia law reflect growing support nationwide for reforming marijuana laws. Most Americans favor the enactment of a broad array of legal reforms specific to marijuana policy, according to new nationwide polling data provided by YouGov.com.

Specifically, six-in-10 Americans say that “marijuana should be made legal in the United States.” Majorities of Democrats (72 percent) and independents (60 percent) back legalization, while most Republicans (46 percent) do not.

Last week, members of the United States House of Representatives voted 220 to 204 in favor of The MORE Act, which removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act thereby allowing states to legalize cannabis markets free from federal interference. Most Democrats (217) voted for the bill while all but three Republicans voted against it.

A majority of Americans also support amending federal law so that banks and other financial institutions can explicitly partner with state-licensed marijuana businesses. Support for the policy change is strongest among Democrats (66 percent) and weakest among Republicans (38 percent).

Under existing federal law, financial institutions are discouraged from partnering with state-licensed cannabis businesses. According to the most recent financial information provided by the US Treasury Department, only about ten percent of all banks and only about four percent of all credit unions provide services to licensed cannabis-related businesses.

House members have voted on six separate occasions to pass federal legislation (The SAFE Banking Act) to reform this policy, but Senators have never taken any action to advance it in the Upper Chamber. Most recently, House members voted in February to include SAFE Banking provisions in HR 4521: the America COMPETES Act. Senators failed to include similar language in their version of the bill. (Courtesy NORML)

420 Week arrives in D.C.

D.C. is gearing up for a blazing 420 Week, featuring several days of exciting panels, art and community-building events and parties culminating in the National Cannabis Festival on April 23, featuring Wiz Khalifa, Lettuce, Ghostface Killah, Backyard Band, DuPont Brass, Shamans of Sound, Cramer, and more. 

This year, the sixth annual National Cannabis Festival, which celebrates progress on cannabis legalization, is expanding to a full weekend of epic cannabis-related events, including the National Cannabis Policy Summit April 22 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and the National Cannabis Championship, presented by Gentleman Toker and slated for April 24 at Echostage with Slick Rick. The weekend is the capstone of 420 Week, hosted by the National Cannabis Festival organizers in partnership with the Eaton Hotel and DC Brau. The week kicks off on Saturday, April 16, with movie screenings, evening parties, a beer launch and more. Read on for the week’s highlights, courtesy of Festival organizers:
 

420 Week

Saturday, April 16 – Sunday, April 24 

Eaton Hotel + DC Brau

From the Hemp and Hops Panel and launch of NCF Legalize It! Lager at DC Brau (3178-B Bladensburg Rd. NE) on April 16 to the 4/20 Kickback Party featuring Khalifa Kush and panel with artists discussing cannabis’s role in their practice at the Eaton Hotel (1201 K St, NW), 420 Week promises something for everyone with an interest in cannabis culture. Take a tour with Luckie Chucky tours, participate in a “Plantwave Soundbath” and more. Nearly all events are free; RSVP required. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com for details. 
 

National Cannabis Policy Summit

Friday, April 22, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Join a who’s who of activists, industry pioneers, government leaders, journalists and more for an electric and illuminating day looking at the era’s most pressing cannabis policy challenges and opportunities. U.S. Senate candidate and Civil Rights activist Gary Chambers; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; Portland Cannabis Program Manager Dasheeda Dawson; Aamra Ahmad, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and many others will be on hand to discuss environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, banking legislation, decriminalization and more. Afterward, stay for a reception sponsored by Weedmaps. All events are free; registration is strongly recommended. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/ncf-policy-summit for details. 
      

National Cannabis Festival

Saturday, April 23, 12 p.m. 

RFK Festival Grounds

2400 East Capitol St., NE, Lot 8

 The highlight of 420 Week events is the East Coast’s largest ticketed cannabis gathering, which returns to Washington’s RFK Campus with performances from Wiz Khalifa Lettuce, Ghostface Killah and many others. Also on tap: a wide range of exhibitors, five pavilions on topics from wellness to agriculture to education, and a brand-new culinary pavilion featuring top chefs from Maydan, Maketto, Moon Rabbit, as well as the Munchies Zone, with 75 of the region’s most popular food trucks including Peruvian Brothers, Jerk at Nite, Reba’s Funnel Cakes and more. (Note: No THC infused foods are permitted to be sold or sampled at NCF; festival-goers must be 21 and up.) Tickets range from $75-$375 for one or two-day admission to the festival and National Cannabis Championship. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets
 

National Cannabis Championship Presented by Gentleman Toker

Sunday, April 24, 12 p.m.

2135 Queens Chapel Rd., NE

Slick Rick and DJ Footwerk are giving festival-goers a sendoff to remember on the final day of 420 Week and the festival weekend, at the National Cannabis Championship at Echostage, new this year. Presented by Gentleman Toker, this awards show and bash celebrates the incredible cannabis cultivation taking place in the Washington area and across the Mid-Atlantic. Expect exhibitors, comedy, munchies, drinks and a chance to chill with some of the biggest names and brands in cannabis cultivation. Tickets are $55. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets.

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