The Story Behind Cash's Version of "Hurt"
A year before his death at 70, Johnny Cash would gain a younger generation of fans by covering a Nine Inch Nails song from 1994 entitled "Hurt". The questions regarding the interest in covering that specific song are inevitable. On the one hand, the song was a strange choice while also being very appropriate, given his stage of life.
The original version of "Hurt" has a much different feel to it. However, in true Cash style, his version applies an entirely unique translation based simply on the voice singing those same lyrics. The original artist, Trent Reznor, envisioned the song’s story as being about a younger person spiraling into either self-harm or drug addiction. The Johnny Cash version provided a new light with an interpretation focused on an older man who knew his life was coming to an end. Prior to recording and releasing "Hurt" in 2002, Cash was a legend in the music industry and a crossover hit was the last thing necessary to secure his musical legacy.
Born in 1932 Arkansas, Cash signed his first major record deal in the mid-fifties with the legendary Sun Records of Memphis and soon thereafter began establishing himself as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, country singers of all time. Classics such as "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire" continue to be heard from contemporary radio stations to college dorm rooms from coast-to-coast. Why? Johnny Cash was one of the original rock ‘n roll rebels and, due to his outlaw image, he received the nickname "the man in black". By the latter part of the '70s and '80s, a new interest grabbed hold of Johnny. It was during this time that Cash began focusing more on expanding his career behind the camera instead of the microphone by steadily appearing on both television and film. Although he continued to make a nice living in film, he just could not shake the need to record his personal and relative music for the times.
As the '90s rolled around, Cash found himself in a tough spot. The music industry has begun a dramatic shift towards focusing on alternative rock. The alternative and/or "grunge" sounds held the labels' interests, with a sizable portion of bands being rooted in not just rock, but punk sounds. Throughout the industry, executives found many of those same artists were, ironically, fans of Cash. Several of the alternative scene’s biggest stars would partner with him early in their careers, including Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The Novoselic partnership became known during a Willie Nelson tribute album, with another Cash collaboration appearing on the 1993 U2 album "Zooropa". It was at a Bob Dylan tribute in 1992 that mega-producer Rick Rubin first discovered his interest in the aging star. At this point in his career, Rubin owned an influential record label named American Recordings - the label formerly known as Deaf American. Like so many other situations in Cash's life, he caught Rubin at the right time. Rubin was scouting for a new superstar act to compliment his growing roster and was intrigued by the idea of Cash. Rubin felt Cash remained a vitally important figure in music regardless of the poor treatment by the music industry in recent years. It seemed like an odd choice for Rubin’s label when considering his past roster of talent. Yet it was important to remember the producer's history of working with an eclectic group of artists, including the Red-Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and Slayer. The secret to the signing? Ruben would offer Cash something he offered all artists – complete creative freedom. Johnny Cash explains his first meeting, and initial hesitancy, with Rick Rubin.
"I was doing a show in California. When I came off stage, my manager, Lou Robin said there was a man named Rick Rubin that would like to meet you. He would like to record you. I said I don't want to meet him. Lou said yeah, I think you might like him. I asked why and he said, he's not like the rest of them. I told him bring him back and there's Rick. I said so if you had me on your record label, what would you do? He said what I would do is let you sit down before a microphone with your guitar and sing every song you want. I had always waited for that opportunity."
After Cash signed with Rubin, many people were understandably confused and even a little wary of the pairing. The names of the wary even included Cash’s own daughter, Roseanne, saying, "I called to say please don't do it, dad. Just don't put yourself in a situation where you're not going to get the respect you deserve. I just couldn't bear to think about him going out and playing to 14-year-olds who didn't know or care who it was they were listening to."
The first album he would release on Rubin's label would be titled American Recordings in 1994. That album would feature songs written by Cash himself, plus songs by Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Lowe. American Recordings received positive reviews from critics and earned Cash some of the best reviews of his career. In 1996, Rubin released Unchained as a follow-up to American Recordings. That album would feature covers of Soundgarden, Tom Petty, and Beck, with the album receiving Grammy nominations for best country album. The Unchained album would be followed up four years later by American III: Solitary Man. That third album with Rubin included covers of U2, Tom Petty, Nick Cave, and Neil Diamond along with standard Cash originals. Cash's version of the U2 song, "One", paved the way for Cash to branch out towards the Nine Inch Nails single "Hurt". His last album, "American 4: The Man Comes Around," was released in late 2002. During the final recordings, Rubin approached Cash with the idea of covering the Trent Reznor Nine Inch Nails track. With a little of Cash’s skepticism, he pressed forward by asking his friend Reznor about Cash covering the song. Reznor was interested in the project but did not want the Cash connection to appear too "gimmicky." Later, down the road of negotiations, Reznor finally agreed, and his initial concerns for the project would soon blossom into admiration after viewing the final music video. Around this time, Rubin decided to revisit the song idea with Cash. The hesitation by Cash was surprising, as he explained the difficulty in understanding Reznor's lyrics. Rubin would later tell Rolling Stone Magazine, "I think it was hard for him to hear it. I sent him the lyrics and told him to just read the lyrics. If you like the lyrics, then you'll find a way to do it that will suit you." Cash trusted the advice and agreed to record the song if Reznor approved. In keeping with his nature, it was a pre-approved negotiation already secured for Cash.
Cash decided on a few minor changes to the lyrics. Being a spiritual man, he wanted to substitute the phrase "crown of thorns" in place of the original lyrics used by Nine Inch Nails – which he felt would conflict with his version of the song. There were no disagreements on the change, considering Nine Inch Nails’ radio edit of the song using the same exchange. Everything was full steam ahead for recording the track.
Cash would perform the recordings at Rick’s house in Los Angeles, not a studio on Nashville's famous Music Row. The video for the song "Hurt" was a memorable film shot on a fittingly wintry day in the suburbs of Nashville, February of 2003. The choice of director was a veteran named Mark Romanek, whose previous credits included artists such as Madonna, Beck, and Lenny Kravitz. Romanek had been exhaustively begging Rubin for the chance to work with Johnny Cash. Once given the green light by Rubin and Cash, Romanek’s video goal was to capture Cash’s life by splicing images of a young and self-assuredly overconfident rebel with a weakened older man, appearing to be nearing the end of his life. A significant portion of the video footage was shot at the House of Cash Museum in Nashville, which by this point was in a pretty awful state of disrepair, as shown in the video. The scenes of decaying fruit and the neglected museum served as a metaphor for Cash’s personal health.
Unfortunately, the building used for this video would soon succumb to a house fire mere months after its completion.
In May 2003, Johnny’s wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, passed away. Only months later, in September, Johnny Cash would follow. Cash's last album, American IV would prove to be an amazing farewell for the legendary musician. The last album was the first Johnny Cash record to achieve gold in the US in over three decades. Leaving audiences asking, how did Trent Reznor feel about the song's cover?
"Rick sent a photo saying we're doing another record with Johnny, and we'd like to do "Hurt." Are you OK with it? Of course. A couple weeks later CD shows up in the mail and we listen to it. You know it was very strange not hearing this giant voice inhabiting song as I wrote it. You know it was so weird at that moment that I have felt so wrong compositionally that I kind of dismissed it. I just wasn't ready to absorb it. After that that a video shows up and it's the video of Johnny’s song. When watching it, that's when the full impact was really important moment. I was feeling pretty insecure about myself and what I was working on at the time. When I wrote those words, and how I felt, it was personal intimate writing in my journal. Then to hear them juxtaposed against the life of this icon sung so beautifully and emotionally? It was a very conscious reminder of what a beautiful medium music is."