When you try to think about the incredibly long list of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits, it’s difficult to single out just one.
But for me personally, the Man in Black’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” always sits a top of my list.
The song is incredibly haunting, deep, and on top of that, Cash released the song less than a year before passing away in 2003.
“Hurt” will forever be an all-time favorite in Cash’s discography, and played a huge role in the success of his 2002 American IV: The Man Comes Around album. And really, it played a huge role in all of his American Recordings.
However, little did I know that Cash’s cover almost never happened, because he reportedly didn’t want to record it in the first place.
In an interview with BBC, legendary producer Rick Rubin saidit wasn’t the lyrics of the song that Cash didn’t like, it was the aggressive, rock nature of Nine Inch Nails’ version of the song.
“I thought of Johnny Cash as the mythical Man in Black, and any song that he sang had to suit this mythical Man in Black. And one of the ones that seemed to resonate with people after we did it was the Nine Inch Nails song, ‘Hurt.’
And if you listen to the words, it’s like looking back over a life of regret and remorse.”
Rubin continued, saying that Johnny was very apprehensive to take a stab at the Nine Inch Nails song:
“I played him the song first, and Johnny just looked at me like I was insane, because the Nine Inch Nails version of the song is very noisy, aggressive… and Johnny was wary”
But, in an effort to change his mind, Rubin made a demo with the same arrangement that Cash would ultimately use, and it worked:
“I think I did a demo where I had a guitar player play it, and I said the words the way I imagined him saying it, and then when he heard the lyrics, and he heard the format of what it could be, he said, ‘Let’s try it.'”
He also adds that Johnny was very frail in his final days, and that when his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, had passed away, Johnny was faced with a tough decision:
“He wasn’t well enough to tour anymore, his partner was gone, and his choice was to die or to carry on… and he chose to carry on.”
And carry on he did… so much so that, some of those final recordings went on to become some of the most iconic of his career… especially “Hurt.”
I think we can all thank Rick Rubin for making some magic with the late, great country music legend… the great Johnny Cash.
Is Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” The Greatest Cover Of All Time?
Nearly 21 years ago, in November of 2002, Johnny Cash rocked our worlds with the release of his final studio album, American IV: The Man Comes Around.
It was the fourth album in Cash’s American series of albums, and the last released during his lifetime. Produced by Rick Rubin, who was primarily known for his work in rap and metal, the first album featured some of bare bones recordings of old Cash songs as well as new ones written by A-list artists, and a few covers, but overall, the 6-part project featured a ton of covers.
Perhaps none more iconic that his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
Written by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, it’s a brutally honest reflection about self harm and how empty life can be in deep, dark depression, and many even suspect that the song is meant to be written as a suicide note.
The song was released less than a year before Cash passed away at the age of 71, only a few months before his wife, June Carter, passed away.
With that being said, “Hurt” has one of the most moving, yet saddening, music videos you’ll ever see.
The video, directed by frequent Nine Inch Nails director Mark Romanek, displays the man himself dressed in black at his home, and also features a number of flashback videos of the man in his prime, along with footage inside of the empty House of Cash museum.
According to Romanek in an interview with Rolling Stone, the decrepit nature of the video was meant to reflect the poor condition that Johnny was in:
“It had been closed for a long time; the place was in such a state of dereliction. That’s when I got the idea that maybe we could be extremely candid about the state of Johnny’s health, as candid as Johnny has always been in his songs.”
You can literally see the “hurt” in Cash’s eyes, as he reflects on his past, and begins to break down and weep at the end… it’s beautiful and brutal.
When Reznor finally saw it, he had to take five:
“We were in the studio, getting ready to work and I popped it in. By the end I was really on the verge of tears. I’m working with Zach de la Rocha, and I told him to take a look.
At the end of it, there was just dead silence. There was, like, this moist clearing of our throats and then, ‘Uh, OK, let’s get some coffee.'”
And speaking of Reznor, he was initially skeptical about Johnny recording it and actually he didn’t really like it the first time he heard it.
According to an interview with NME, he said it felt invasive… too personal to share:
“I said I’d be very flattered but was given no indication it would actually be recorded. Two weeks went by. Then I got a CD in the post.
I listened to it and it was very strange. It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive.”
But when he saw the video everything changed:
“I pop the video in, and wow… tears welling, silence… wow. I felt like I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.
It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone.
That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning… different, but every bit as pure.”
And to this day, one might argue that it’s the greatest cover of all time.
It damn sure is one of the best music videos of all time.
Go behind the scenes with director Mark Romanek, as well as commentary from Rick Rubin, Trent Reznor, Bono and more.