Producer Rick Rubin Shares How He Got Johnny Cash to Cover Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’
Nov. 5 will mark 20 years since "The Man In Black" Johnny Cash released American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, one of the final installments of his famed American Recordings series and the last album released while he was still alive.
Included on the album is an incredible and often discussed cover of Nine Inch Nail's gripping track, "Hurt" (from The Downward Spiral), which has been hailed by critics as one of the best covers ever made and given the seal of approval by Trent Reznor himself. Billboard ranked "Hurt" the No. 4 best song of Cash's career and American Songwriter placed it No. 3 on their list, even ahead of "Ring of Fire."
Much of the credit for the "Hurt" cover though really goes to notable producer Rick Rubin, who first approached Cash about the American Recordings sessions in the early '90s after the country singer had been nearly forgotten about and his record sales plummeted. The sessions were a huge career rebirth with record sales and a new generation of fans.
So you might think that Cash would trust Rubin's instinct by the fourth edition of the series. But when Rubin suggested "Hurt" for one of the covers, "Johnny looked at me like I was insane," the producer shared in a recent Oct. 23 interview with Lauren Larverne for BBC Radio 4's program, "Desert Island Discs," parts of which were transcribed by Music Radar.
"The Nine Inch Nails version of the song is very noisy, aggressive. Johnny was wary!” Rubin said, though Cash eventually came around. “I think I did a demo where I had a guitar player play it, and I said the words the way I imagined [Johnny] 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.’”
Rubin also added recollections of first meeting Cash and the country star's reservations about working with him, believing his own career to be done. “He didn’t know who I was, but he wanted to understand why I would want to work with him because why would anyone want to work with him? In his mind, he was done,” Rubin said, later adding, "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.”
Specifically choosing "Hurt" for Cash to cover, Rubin added, "I thought of the image of Johnny Cash as the mythical Man in Black, and any song he sang had to suit this mythical Man in Black. And one of the ones that seemed to have resonated with people after we did it was 'Hurt.' If you listen to the words, it’s like looking back over a life of regret and remorse.”
As for Reznor, he gave the cover his blessing, though he also wasn't sold at first, as he told Alternative Press in 2004. "Rick Rubin has been a friend for a long time, and he called me asking how I felt about Johnny covering 'Hurt.' I was flattered, but frankly, the idea sounded a bit gimmicky to me. ... A few weeks later, a CD shows up with the track. ... It sounded... weird to me. That song in particular was straight from my soul, and it felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Johnny Cash singing it."
Reznor added that a few weeks later, a videotape was mailed to him featuring the music video Mark Romanek did for Cash's cover. "I pop the video in, and... wow. Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore. Then it all made sense to me. It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form ... reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and ... [is] every bit as pure."