Something immediately noticeable about singer-songwriter Cherish Lee is the ink that adorns her forearms. When she puts her arms together, you see the words “Always Remember” reading from her right forearm to the left. The statement, she notes, is a permanent reminder of her late younger brother Johnny, who battled drug addiction throughout his life and died of a heroin overdose in 2014.
Lee is also honoring her brother with the just-released single “Ones You Leave Behind,” which she co-wrote. A heartfelt music video for the song is also available for viewing. She talked about the song, her celebrity heritage – she’s the daughter of “Lookin’ for Love” singer Johnny Lee and actress Charlene Tilton – and other topics during a conversation at the BMI offices in Nashville.
Obviously, “Ones You Leave Behind” deals with a heavy, and certainly morose, subject. But her fervent hope is that it elicits a positive, even uplifting, reaction. “When you lose somebody, there is that grief period,” Lee begins. “After I lost my brother, it was so jarring and it was really weird to wake up the next morning and everything was just continuing around me. It’s a very personal song for me, but I think everyone can relate to it on some level. When I sat down to write this,” she shares as an example, “one of my co-writers had a friendship that just dissolved. So, we have all experienced loss of some kind. This was one [song] that I felt could reach multiple audiences.” In a statement about the song, Lee expressed that, “Hopefully, ‘Ones You Leave Behind’ helps people to take a step forward in their new lives without that person they love so much.”
Lee is candid about the devastating effect of losing her brother. “I don’t know that I’ve been fully able to take in his loss,” she says after an emotional pause. “When it happened, it brought me to my knees. They had to peel me off the floor.” But she can also bring herself up enough to share a lighthearted memory. “We were about seven-and-a-half years apart, and I really didn’t think I wanted him as a kid,” she says with a warm smile. “I think one time I dropped him down the stairs, but thank goodness, little kids are so resilient. We came to really love each other and I miss him.
Her brother’s death from drugs has inspired her to become more of an activist. Lee is taking the platform she has as an artist to advocate for the removal of harmful drugs from the streets, where easy access is available. “Right now my main goal is to reach elementary schools,” she says. “I want to do a big benefit concert and also, basically, go on a high school tour. I’d like to go to schools and play some music and share my testimony. We’ll have the facts behind us and everything. I want to tell students how uncool [drug use] is and bring it to life. In other words, if you do drugs, for whatever reason, this is what you’re gonna be dealing with.” She smiles and adds, “I’m a young person with tattoos on my arms. I think they’ll be receptive to me.”
Lee chose music as her artistic calling, mainly following in the footsteps of her dad Johnny Lee, who lit up the charts in 1980 with his biggest hit “Lookin’ for Love,” from the popular “Urban Cowboy” movie. But there’s also acting in her blood from her mom, Charlene Tilton, best known for her role as Lucy Ewing on the “Dallas” TV series. Tilton and Johnny Lee were married from 1982-1984. For a time, Cherish Lee balanced stage work and singing, before music finally won out.
“I did some acting and I enjoyed it,” she smiles. “It’s just a very frustrating business. I remember going to auditions and you would get so close. There were a couple of big parts I didn’t get. At least with music, there is that immediate gratification, I guess you’d say. You can go play your songs for someone and get feedback right in that moment.”
Movies still come calling occasionally, though. She notes that she’s currently in the midst of a project that could wind up either on TV or the theater screens. “I play a detective,” Lee says before breaking into a grin. “I’m excited. I hope I get to wear a badge.” When away from screen or stage, Lee prefers family time with her husband and young son at their Nashville home. “We watch very little television when I’m home,” she allows. “Except when ‘Big Brother’ is on. Then we’re hooked,” she adds with a hearty giggle.
She’s been in Nashville for around three years, and has quickly picked up on some of the Music Row protocol, particularly when it comes to co-writing. “I have always written,” Lee says. “I think writing came before singing or performing. I was used to writing solo but I know that co-writing is how it’s done in Nashville. I have gotten to write with some of the Music Row writers and I loved it. Actually, that’s one of my favorite things about Nashville is the collaborative process. Some people have a hard time getting used to that, but I enjoy it.” Lee recorded her album “Tequila Cowgirl,” featuring the title track, in Nashville.
Up next is a Christmas album due shortly, along with plans for more touring next year. “I love playing for people,” she smiles. “As my dad always says, ‘I’ll play in an open garage if they’ll pay me.’ That’s kind of the way I feel about it, too. I’m just really looking forward to 2019.”
Cherish Lee’s “Ones You Leave Behind” is available on iTunes, Spotify and all digital retailers. For more on Lee, please visit her website.