The Story Behind Cash's Version of "Hurt"
Updated: Apr 14
Almost a year before his death at the age of 70, Johnny Cash would gain a younger generation of fans by covering a Nine Inch Nails song from 1994 entitled “Hurt”. The question of how did he end up covering that specific song is bound to be asked? It seemed like a strange choice at the time while also being very appropriate given his stage life.
The original version of “Hurt” is a much different take on the song. However, Cash’s version applies an entirely unique translation based simply on who is singing the lyrics. The original artist, Trent Reznor, believed the song’s story was about a young person spiraling into either self-harm or drug addiction. The Johnny Cash version provided the song 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 long regarded as a legend in the music industry and a cross-over hit was the last thing needed to secure his legacy.
Born in 1932 Arkansas, Cash went on to sign his first major record deal in the mid-50s with Memphis’ Sun Records and 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. Why?” Johnny Cash was one of the original rock ‘n roll rebels. So much of a rebel, that he was also given the nickname of “the man in black” not just because of his fashion, but because of his outlaw image. By the latter part of the '70s and '80s Cash began focusing more on expanding his career behind the camera instead of the microphone by steadily appearing in both television and film. As he continued to make a 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 difficult spot. The music industry began a dramatic shift to focus on alternative rock. The alternative and/or “grunge” sound held the labels interests with a significant portion of bands being rooted in not just rock, but punk. Throughout the industry, we began to find 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 came to light during a Willie Nelson tribute album with another Cash collaboration appearing later on the 1993 U2 album “Zooropa”. Ultimately, it was Cash’s appearance at a Bob Dylan tribute in 1992 where mega producer Rick Rubin’s attention was gained. At this point in his career, Rubin owned a powerful record label named American Recordings - the label formerly known as Deaf American. Cash 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 had long felt Cash remained a vitally important figure in music and had been treated unfairly by the industry at large. At the time, it seemed like an odd choice for Rubin’s label when considering his past roster of talent. Yet it was important to remember Rubin’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 explained 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 Rick Rubin's, a lot of people were understandably confused and even a little wary. 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 put out on Rubens label would be called American Recordings and once he is released in 1994. The album would feature songs written by Cash himself plus songs by Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen and Nick Lowe. The album was well received by critics and earned Cash some of the best reviews of his career. Ruben followed up American Recordings with Unchained in 1996. 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 2000’s American III: Solitary Man. The 3rd album with Rubin included covers of U2, Tom Petty, Nick Cave and Neil Diamond along with standard Cash originals. The u2 song, “One”, paved the way for Cash to branch out towards the Nine Inch Nails single “Hurt”. The final album of his career would arrive in late 2002 and titled American 4: The Man Comes Around. During the final recordings, Rick Rubin approached Cash with the idea of covering the Trent Reznor Nine Inch Nails track. With a little of Cash’s skepticism, Rubin pressed forward by asking his friend Reznor about Cash covering the song. Reznor said he was flattered but did not want Cash to look too “gimmicky”. Later in the process, Reznor finally agreed and his initial concerns for the project would soon blossom into admiration after viewing the final music video. Back to the negotiation of the cover by Reuben. At this time, Rubin decided to circle back with Cash about the song. Cash explained he was having trouble understanding the lyrics. Rubin would later tell Rolling Stone Magazine, “I think it was hard for him to hear it. I sent him the lyrics and said 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 of Rubin and agreed to record the song, if Reznor approved. That part of the deal was already secured by Rubin...
Cash did decide to make a few minor changes to the lyrics. Being a spiritual man, Cash wanted to substitute the phrase “crown of thorns” in the place of the original lyrics used by Nine Inch Nails – which he felt would not be consistent to his version of the song. There were no disagreements on the change considering Nine Inch Nails’ radio edit of the song used the same exchange. Everything was full steam ahead for recording.
Rubin and Cash would have the song recorded Rick’s house in Los Angeles and not a Nashville studio as initially planned. The video for the song “Hurt” was a very memorable film and shot on a fittingly cold, wintry day in the suburbs of Nashville, February of 2003. The choice of director was a veteran named Mark Romanek, who’s previous credits included artist 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 cocky rebel with a frail older man appearing to be nearing the end of his life. Much of the video footage was taken at the House of Cash Museum in Nashville, which by this point was in a pretty bad 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 be destroyed by a house fire just months after the video was shot.
In May of 2003, Johnny’s wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, passed away. Just a few short months later, in September, Johnny Cash would follow. Cash's final 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 more than three decades. Leaving us the question of how did Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor feel about the song 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.”