NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Daughters of Royalty

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The musical revolution that came out of Sun Records in Memphis in the 1950s continues to influence generations of artists who themselves continue to change the face of popular music. And the revolutionaries’ own very real children are making their mark. Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley both worked their way into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Now, their daughters are making their own music.

Both Rosanne Cash and Lisa Marie Presley have become songwriters with strong viewpoints. Both grew up largely without their fathers’ presence. Lisa Marie was only 9 when Elvis died in 1977, but they were very close during his lifetime. Rosanne grew up in California after Johnny Cash and her mother Vivian Liberto were divorced. After high school Rosanne moved to Nashville to be near her father and worked in his Johnny Cash Road Show. She married producer-writer-singer Rodney Crowell in 1979.

Lisa Marie was raised by her mother Priscilla in privacy in California but returns often to her childhood home of Graceland. As the sole heir to the Presley estate and as the remaining flesh and blood of the man millions idolized, she long hesitated to even be in the public eye, much less trying to emerge in the public eye as an artist.

Given America’s celebrity fixation, she’s been more of a social phenomenon than a person. I mean, I can almost understand her marrying Michael Jackson because she felt he was perhaps the only male in America who understood the traps of fame and the whole celebrity bubble thing. The fact that she overrated Jackson only serves to fuel her anger and sense of betrayal.

Presley’s debut CD doesn’t answer all the questions about her abilities. The album is overproduced to the point that her voice is given little opportunity to establish itself. Her songwriting, though, bears watching. Lisa Marie Presley is clearly still working through a great deal of anger and it fuels her lyrics. Four-letter words dot her lyrics, but the message that comes through is an honest yearning for things to be sorted out for the best, for people to trust and understand each other and her own yearning to be understood.

This CD is not country per se. But Lisa Marie is country in the sense that the country heritage is her legacy, in the sense that her songwriting reflects the country song sensibility and in the certainty that country is where she will likely wind up. If Elvis’ daughter is not eternally wedded to the cultures that nurtured his music, then no one is. This package attempts to present her as a sort of Southern Gothic Alanis Morissette, but that’s not where her emotions seem to ultimately lie. She’s a storyteller, with a romantic — and vengeful — vision. And that’s a stone country thang. Her ode to her two children “So Lovely,” is a tender, soul-baring tete-a-tete that offsets the venom-filled darts she aims at ex-husbands Jackson and Nicholas Cage. She takes a laconic look at the darker side of the Elvis legacy in the single “Lights Out.” She sings, “Someone turned the lights out in Memphis/That’s where my family’s buried and gone/Last time I was there I noticed a space left/Next to them in Memphis in the damn back lawn.” That empty grave awaiting her next to Elvis’ is just the most visible bit of her heritage. The weight of his fame and success kept her from trying her own wings all these years.

Now, as a beginning artist and songwriter, she’s mounting a search for her path and identity. This is a very solid and promising beginning.

If Presley seriously seeks career guidance, she could do a lot worse than to look to Rosanne Cash. Rosanne is a decade or so older than Presley and she didn’t necessarily grow up under the same celebrity gaze that Lisa Marie did, but she has certainly faced and dealt with her own issues of being the offspring of fame.

Cash leaped to country music prominence with a series of stunning recordings in the 1980s, with eleven No. 1 country singles between 1981 and 1989. Her albums Seven Year Ache and King’s Record Shop still stand up as some of the finest work in country music history.

After her 1992 divorce from Crowell, Cash had had enough of Nashville and moved to New York City, married producer John Leventhal and began writing fiction. Her return to recording was blocked by a serious health problem. During pregnancy in 1998, a polyp developed on her vocal cords, preventing her from singing and reducing her voice to a muted whisper. After her child arrived, her voice still didn’t return. She abandoned songwriting and the whole prospect of singing again. Finally, after two years, her voice slowly started to return and voice therapy eventually brought about recovery.

Her new release Rules of Travel includes eight new Rosanne Cash songs (of the 11 songs on the album) in the vein of some of her best work. She sounds a bit more mature now and resigned to the vagaries of life. At the same time, she continues to explore the pain and mystery of intimacy, just as Lisa Marie is striving to do on her debut work.

These are not necessarily two sides of the same coin, but here we witness two very strong women dealing with rare and exotic legacies. Lisa Marie lives with the loss of her famous father. Rosanne was afforded the privilege to duet with her father for the first time on her new album. Father and daughter Cash sing together on her “September When It Comes,” and it is a very moving experience. The song itself is a treatise on mortality, and it’s doubly affecting to hear the weakened, aged and ill Johnny Cash sing the words, “I cannot move a mountain now/I can no longer run/I cannot be who I was then/In a way, I never was.”

In reflecting on her life, Rosanne has said, “As the daughter of Johnny Cash, I associated singing with fame, and I thought fame was just about the worst thing that could happen to you, because of what I had seen with my father. As I saw it, fame broke your marriage apart (my parents divorced when I was 11), kept you away from home for about 300 days a year and was so exhausting that it turned you into an addict because you needed substances to keep going. Why would anyone want that?”

Lisa Marie addresses her father’s situation in the song “Nobody Noticed It.” She sings, “You’re still lovely/You were lovely then/All that you had to endure/I guess nobody noticed it/You made me/I love you. …”

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