How Johnny Cash Ended Up Covering Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’

This is the story of Johnny Cash‘s iconic cover of “Hurt” by Nine inch nails.

By the early 90s, Johnny Cash had fallen from grace. He had spent much of the 1980s increasingly marginalized, chasing trends rather than setting them, and eventually Columbia, his label of 25 years, dropped him. At the same time, he was recovering from a drug addiction relapse and health problems crept in. Johnny’s future in the music business looked bleak.

It was after a show in 1992 that Johnny was approached by a young and hot record producer with an idea to help revitalize his career. Def Jam records co-founder, Rick Rubinwas at that show and saw a still vital artist who didn’t deserve an early sunset.

“I said, ‘If you had me on your record label, what would you do that no one else has done?’ Cash remembered asking Rubin. “And he said, ‘What I would do is put you in front of a microphone and record any song you want.’ Just you and the guitar.’ [I said,] “You’re talking about a dream I had a long time ago.”

Back in the early 90s, Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor rented out a house in Los Angeles to write and record a new album. It was the famous house where Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by the Manson family in the 60s. Reznor was not in a good place emotionally – he was struggling with his newfound fame and his sense of identity. To cope with his depression, he wrote a brutal depiction of self-loathing and numb feeling that began,”I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel.

Reznor later called the song “a valentine to the sufferer.” He sings the verses quietly and intimately, followed by the chorus where it feels like Trent is releasing all the pain he felt inside him.

“I’ve always had a sadness and a sense of abandonment, I guess, that haunted me and never felt like I fit in anywhere,” Reznor shared Song Explode. “Always feel like an outsider. It’s not rational, it just happens often.”

Ultimately, Reznor was flattered that a man of Johnny Cash’s stature would consider covering “Hurt,” so he gave the go-ahead.

Johnny’s version ended up being more bare bones. Acoustic guitar, with tasteful touches of organ and piano, which allowed Johnny’s aged and weathered voice to shine through, but it is clear that age did not take anything away from Johnny’s greatness. His weakened voice allowed him to convey emotions in a deeper way and you believe in the wisdom he espouses.

“The lyrics have such a deep sense of regret,” Rubin told Lex Friedman. “And to hear when you’re 20 years old talking about regret, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s heartbreaking in a different way because you have your whole life to figure it out. When you look back on your life at the end of your life with regret. It’s brutal. It’s brutal”.

What really changed the meaning of “Hurt” and what would elevate it to a whole other level was the video. Directed by Mark Romanek, it unfolded like a mini-biography, mixing archival footage, home movies and a performance as powerful as the song itself. Realizing he had little time to shoot the video, Mark flew to Tennessee to meet Johnny and found the perfect location – a dilapidated museum built in Johnny’s honor, the House of Cash Museum. In it, Mark revealed stacks of old footage. A light bulb went off when one of the first reels he saw showed a young Johnny riding a train. There was something about the footage of Johnny as a young, vibrant man, cut to him near the end of his life in a weathered old museum, that was undeniably powerful.

Three months after the video was shot, Johnny’s wife, June Carter Cash, died. Johnny himself died months later, barely a year after the release of American IV, his album with “Hurt” on it. It would end up being Johnny’s first album to achieve gold status in the US in more than 30 years.

“Hurt” is a prime example of how powerful music can be. What was originally intended as sour, uncertain and intimate was a song put together with a country legend that was beautiful, emotional and introspective. Although an industrial rock band like Nine Inch Nails wrote this dark song that sounds like a suicide note, it transcended genre to prove that ultimately song deals in only one currency… true heartfelt emotion.

Watch the story of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” in the video below.

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