Covering Hurt, by Rich Paschall
You probably know what it means to “cover” a song. That’s when one artist records, or “covers,” the work of another artist. Sometimes the later version becomes a bigger hit than the original. Such was the case when white artists were “Covering R&B Music” and getting all of the radio airplay. If you have been following this space, you probably have noticed we have covered this topic often. (Pun intended.)
You may have been “Disturbed” to learn that a heavy metal group covered the classic “Sound of Silence.” You may have wondered “Who Covered Who” when we talked about the folk-pop hit “Both Sides Now.” You knew Rick Astley was “Never Gonna Give You Up,” but could you imagine another singer offering the same thing? If you are up “After Midnight,” you may be singing the Eric Clapton song, but did you know he was actually covering another artist’s work? We have presented many cover songs with the question, “Who Sang It Best?”
When you think of country-rock legend Johnny Cash, you probably do not think of him as a cover artist. He was a prolific singer-songwriter and penned some classic hits like “I Walk The Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Man in Black” and “Flesh and Blood.” He also wrote songs with his wife, June Carter Cash. She wrote “Ring of Fire” with Merle Kilgore which became one of Johnny’s biggest hits. Of course, he also performed a number of songs written by others. He recorded an astounding 97 albums, several were posthumous releases.
Late in life Cash had a resurgence in his career when he teamed up with legendary record producer Rick Rubin. As co-founder of Def Jam Records, Rubin was not exactly known for working with country stars. In fact, he produced some of the early hip hop artists, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run DMC, and others. He also worked with heavy metal acts like Slayer, Metallica, AC/DC and a list of famous hard rock bands
For his American Recordings label, Rubin produced an album for Johnny Cash, released in 1994, that included six cover songs as well as some new material Rubin solicited. How did Rubin team up with Cash?
In 1992, Rubin saw Cash at a Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary concert and felt that Cash was still a great artist who had been pushed aside by the industry. Cash was understandably skeptical of someone who had worked in very different musical genres, but Rubin promised Cash creative control. “I would like you to do whatever feels right for you.” So Cash went back to the way he performed in the early years, just Johnny and a guitar. The record was simply called “American Recordings.”
The album was a critical success and revitalized the career of one of Country Western’s greatest stars. This lead to another album with Rubin producing in 1996, then another and another. In 2002, American IV: The Man Comes Around was a double LP consisting of mostly cover songs, and a surprising selection at that. It included country, traditional (Danny Boy, Streets of Laredo), pop, and the “industrial rock” hit by Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt.”
Cash did not know what to make of the Nine Inch Nails recording so Rubin sent him the lyrics. “Just read the lyrics. If you like the lyrics, then we’ll find a way to do it that will suit you.” Cash read it. He got it.
Nine Inch Nails songwriter and lead singer Trent Reznor was not exactly enthusiastic about the idea of Cash doing his song but thought it probably would not happen anyway. When he received the recording, he was not impressed. “It didn’t sound bad, it just sounded something wrong, it sounded alien,” Reznor said.
Enter movie director Mark Romanek. He had previously produced a number of famous artists’ videos and was looking for a chance to make a Cash video. “I begged Rick Rubin to let me shoot something to that track,” Romanek told Dave Urbanski, author of a January 2003 biography of Cash. Johnny Cash was not really interested. He was old and sick did not want to stay in Tennessee where it was wintertime and cold. Romanek knew it was a race against time. He was given a small amount of time in which to work.
They used the long-shuttered House Of Cash museum, a former home, to film the video. The place was in a stay of decay. While Romanek did not have any intention of splicing in other footage, they found a complete library of Johnny Cash films at the home and added some cuts of a younger Cash.
When Reznor received the video, his mind was changed. “Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow.” He had written the song at a dark and desperate time in his life, and it carried a very personal meaning for him. “[Somehow] 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.”
For comparison, we offer the Nine Inch Nails version. We won’t ask who sang it best.
Rubin and Romanek talked about the making of the video in the following cut. Some music heavyweights offer up their comments as well.
Sources: “Why Did Johnny Cash Cover Hurt?” radioX, radio.co.uk, 26 February 2020.
“Hurt (Nine Inch Nails Song)” en.wikipedia.org
“The story behind Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’, still the saddest music video of all time,” by Christopher Hooton, Independent, independent.co.uk, 6 October 2015.
“Johnny Cash: “Hurt”, The Story Behind The Video,” by Paul Goodman, spinditty.com, 17 February 2020.