Rosanne Cash in a portrait, sitting with flowers

‘Thick skin, open heart’

March 7, 2023


First-year student Paxton Mills, studying biochemistry and molecular biology, had a straightforward question for Grammy-winning musician Rosanne Cash:  The music and STEM industries are traditionally male dominated. How can young women and girls navigate those fields and pursue their rightful spots at the table?

“You have to develop a thick skin while you keep your heart open, and that is a trick,” Cash told Mills during a question-and-answer during a talk at the University on Feb. 9. “Thick skin, open heart. And I remind myself of that all the time.”

Cash, a self-described “serious science fan” who is “fascinated by quantum physics,” regaled the audience at the Modlin Center for the Arts with insights and stories from her wide-ranging career.

The internationally acclaimed performer, and daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, spent three days on campus from Feb. 8-10 as an artist in residence. In addition to the talk and a concert, Cash participated in discussions and workshops with two classes: Composition, taught by Ben Broening of the Department of Music, and Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by David Stevens, chair of the Department of English.

During the public talk, Cash answered questions posed by Jenny Cavenaugh, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, about the relationship between creative expression and women’s leadership development.

When asked by Cavenaugh how she learned the music business wasn’t built for women, Cash responded to a laughing audience, “By going into it.” The music business was built as a “boys club,” she said, especially rock ‘n’ roll where bad behavior was just not accepted but marketed — “and there were a lot of women who were collateral damage.”

As Cash later said to Mills during the Q&A, “I couldn’t let bad behavior or insults or even unspoken insults or expectations bring me down. You just have to let it roll off.”

Ninety percent of success is persistence, Cash said. “And also honing in on what your gifts are, and refining that skill set so that as you keep your head down and keep on your path, your skill set gets greater and greater.”

When Cash told her father that she wanted to pursue music, he told her, “I see that you see as I see.” But he also urged, “'Just make sure you take care of your babies first.' That piece of advice has always stayed with me, so I always was home for the parent-teacher meetings, always home for the plays.”

Being a leader means being authentic, hardworking, and kind, she said. “Kindness is so underrated.”