PETERBOROUGH — Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash spent much of her two days at the MacDowell artists’ retreat in Peterborough looking ahead — to new inspiration, to her legacy, even to death.
When given the organization’s 61st MacDowell Medal on Thursday, however, a tearful Cash — the first woman to win the annual award in music composition — was reflective.
“I’d love to travel back and show myself this day,” she told a crowd of about 150 in the organization’s Bond Hall, noting the despair and deep insecurities she felt early in her career.
Her younger self, Cash said, “would still have to figure out how to get from there to here” but could’ve appreciated the “darker moments” that she said were as crucial to her development as learning how to play a G-chord.
The 16-time Grammy nominee and four-time winner charmed Medal Day attendees — mostly MacDowell supporters and fellows — in receiving the award, which is given to artists who have made outstanding contributions to American culture. In a lofty acceptance speech that quoted Emerson and called the arts a “service industry for the heart and soul,” Cash also poked fun at her tendency toward melancholy.
“I’m an acolyte of the patron saint of minor chords,” she joked.
The intimate ceremony departed from a traditional Medal Day, when MacDowell typically opens its sprawling grounds to the public for people to visit its artist studios and watch the award presentation. (Past winners of the MacDowell Medal — named for composer Edward MacDowell, who founded the artists’ retreat in 1907 with his wife, pianist Marian MacDowell — include Thornton Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe and Toni Morrison.)
But after postponing last year’s ceremony to help curb the spread of COVID-19, the organization opted for a smaller event this year, citing the pandemic’s “lingering effects.”
N.H. PBS will broadcast the event in an August program that will also include footage from Cash’s visits with MacDowell artists-in-residence Wednesday and an interview she taped that day with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast.
MacDowell’s resident director, David Macy, said the organization decided this spring to televise the proceedings because it wasn’t clear at that time whether a crowded event would be feasible. The Medal Day program will be broadcast at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 8.
“We wanted everyone in New Hampshire and New England to have access to it,” Macy said.
In her studio visits Wednesday, Cash marveled at paintings, textile prints and poetry created during the artists’ residencies and inquired about their time at MacDowell, asking New York painter Gina Ruggeri if she felt “the weight of history” at the acclaimed retreat.
Cash also seemed particularly to enjoy comparing the fellows’ inspiration and artistic process with her own. In one studio visit, Angela Dufresne and Mala Iqbal, both of New York, showed her paintings they started on their own before swapping midway through to finish the other’s work.
“I would love to try that process with songwriting,” Cash told them. “… That’s going to give rise to some whole other things.”
Cross-disciplinary conversations like those are the “DNA of MacDowell,” which typically hosts around 30 artists at a time but has reduced those numbers during the pandemic, MacDowell Executive Director Philip Himberg said Wednesday.
“Today is kind of like eavesdropping on one of those conversations,” he said.
In an interview with The Sentinel, Cash called it “invigorating” to speak with visual artists and to learn from another MacDowell fellow about a new style of poetry. Despite their artistic differences, she said aspects from all of their work will likely inform her future songwriting.
“I wish I could have spent the day with them,” she said. “… I’m going to take so much inspiration from every single one of them.”
Cash continued the exchange of ideas Wednesday afternoon in a sit-down interview with Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist, at MacDowell’s James Baldwin Library.
In that conversation, Cash — the daughter of singer Johnny Cash — said she started writing poetry at eight or nine but initially didn’t want to be a performer, which she thought would attract negative attention. That changed when she realized performances could be an “energy exchange” with her audience, she said.
“My goal was to make music that didn’t have a bin at the record store,” she said.
Cash also compared notes with Chast on artistic technique, examined how mortality shapes her work and discussed her early years in the music industry, when she said male executives often told her how to look and sound.
“I was just stubborn,” she said. “I pushed against it … Even at that young age, as insecure as I was, I trusted my instincts.”
In a final break from tradition Thursday, Cash followed the Medal Day ceremony with a rendition of her song, “The Undiscovered Country,” with her husband and music collaborator, John Leventhal — the first Medal Day performance by a recipient, according to Himberg. Famed folk singer Emmylou Harris also toasted Cash, combining with Leventhal to perform a cover of Cash’s song, “I Was Watching You.”
In addition to being the first woman to win the MacDowell Medal in musical composition, Cash said the award is also a nod to roots music and her other musical inspirations.
“It’s an honor that the particular genre I work in is being recognized … because it’s so quintessentially American,” she told The Sentinel. “Feeling that I represent that, as well as just myself and what I do — that’s a big deal for me.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that James Baldwin never won the MacDowell Medal. He was a three-time fellow at the artists' retreat.