Cash sings, and is sung to

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash tunes her guitar before students arrive for a songwriting master class at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Cash visited the school as its 2012 Dempsey Writer in Residence, and later performed for more students in the auditorium.
Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash tunes her guitar before students arrive for a songwriting master class at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Cash visited the school as its 2012 Dempsey Writer in Residence, and later performed for more students in the auditorium. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

Teaching a Chestnut Hill class, she listened to compositions, preached persistence.

Posted: February 02, 2012

Rosanne Cash started writing songs when she was the same age as many of the high school students she taught Wednesday morning in a master class on songwriting.

"I was 18," the 56-year-old singer told about 40 aspiring musicians and writers who gathered in a recital hall flooded with winter sunlight at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. "And they were bad songs. Really bad."

That couldn't be said for the songs that Cash sang at SCH Academy, such as her 1981 country hit "Seven Year Ache," which she wrote when she was 23, or "Black Cadillac," composed in 2003 after the death of her father, country giant Johnny Cash.

Nor would it apply to the tunes performed by Elizabeth Worgan and Nick McCall, SCH Academy students who had the gumption to get up on stage, borrow the guitar of their Grammy-winning guest lecturer, and sing their own compositions.

Worgan and McCall both elicited praise from Cash. The singer loved the phrase "the battle hymn of misery" in a song Worgan wrote about the death of Amy Winehouse. And after McCall got through delivering a confidently soulful vocal on a song he thinks he's going to call "Crawl," Cash told him that he reminded her of the Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice.

Cash visited the school as its 2012 Dempsey Writer in Residence, with duties that included teaching the master class and addressing an assembly of 500 students, for whom she performed and read from her 2010 memoir Composed. But she didn't come to Chestnut Hill from her home in Manhattan just to lavish praise on talented teens.

Quite the opposite. Instead, as she said in an early-morning interview, she hoped to convey the idea that being an artist of any kind requires more than talent and inspiration.

"My friend Steven Pressfield wrote a book called The War of Art, and he said, 'You have to show the muse you're serious,' " Cash said. " 'You have to show up, and keep showing up, even if it's awful and you're insecure.' "

"I think it's irresponsible when people tell kids, 'Just be yourself,' " she continued. "All that does is inflate their sense of entitlement. Of course they're going to be themselves, but they have to bring a work ethic to it. You have to pair it with revision, and editing, and a willingness to take risks. You have to be willing to fail without getting derailed."

Cash, a mother of five whose daughter Chelsea Crowell (from her first marriage to songwriter Rodney Crowell) is a nascent singer-songwriter, is close friends with a Chestnut Hill couple whose children attend the school. Cash has been married since 1995 to guitarist-producer John Leventhal, with whom she has a 13-year-old son.

As the guest Dempsey Writer in Residence, a position named for retired English teacher Deborah Dempsey, Cash fielded a range of questions from students.

About dealing with writer's block, she said, "I'm not being myself if I'm not writing." Her remedies: "Solitude. A strong cup of tea. Going to look at a painting that inspires me. Listening to music really loud."

On living in the shadow of a famous father: "I had a chip on my shoulder about it for probably longer than was gracious. It was, 'Can't you see me? I'm not him.' But at some point . . . it was like, 'This legacy, if I don't claim it, somebody else will. This is mine - this is DNA.' And now that my daughter's a songwriter, I find myself at the middle of the story, rather than the end."

Many of the students were familiar with The List, Cash's 2009 album of her recordings of classic American songs drawn from a list of 100 that her father suggested on her 18th birthday that she get to know. She made good on her promise to record a dozen of them - and to finish Composed - after successfully coming through brain surgery in 2007 for a rare disorder called Chiari malformation Type I.

Cash is mulling a sequel to Composed, and is starting to demo songs for what will be her first album of new material since 2006's Black Cadillac. "I'm writing a record about Southern themes, Southern people and places," said the singer, who grew up mostly in Southern California but spent the 1980s living in Nashville. She laughed. "I want to get it out this year before the entire record industry collapses."

At the assembly, Cash joked that she felt like the same person she was when she was the students' age except "with a lot more credit cards." Despite the generation gap, though, the students said her life lessons came across.

"I really liked what she said about the writing process," said Elizabeth Sedran, 18. "I focused on her lyrics. I'm a terrible writer, but I'm a good editor." Another plus about Cash's appearance: "I got out of P.E.!"

Henry O'Reilly, 19, who pronounced himself "a huge Johnny Cash fan," said hearing Rosanne Cash talk instead of going to physics class "was wild. Probably the coolest thing was just seeing her as her own artist. I play piano and I'm terrified of performing, so hearing her talk about having stage fright was really cool."

"I learned that most of the things I worry about and my concerns about my songs she had, too," McCall said, after trying out Cash's custom-made Martin. "I thought it was just because I sucked. It makes me want to write more, to be honest. She was so down-to-earth, and not a space case. She was so relatable and real."

For video of Rosanne Cash with students at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, go to:

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628,, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at

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