Rick Rubin Shares Story Behind Johnny Cash Covering Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’

The song appeared on Cash’s 2002 album, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around.’

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Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, Rick Rubin, and Johnny Cash- Photo: SGranitz/WireImage
Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, Rick Rubin, and Johnny Cash- Photo: SGranitz/WireImage

Rick Rubin was interviewed on October 23 by Lauren Larverne for BBC Radio’s “Desert Island Discs” show, and during their chat he revealed how he got Johnny Cash to record Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” for his 2002 farewell album, American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Shop the best of Johnny Cash’s discography on vinyl and more.

According to Rubin, when he first suggested the cover, “Johnny looked at me like I was insane.” He adds, “The Nine Inch Nails version of the song is very noisy, aggressive. Johnny was wary,” Rubin said, though Cash would agree in the end. “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.’”

Later in the conversation, Rubin adds, “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.”

For his part, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor was also as skeptical of the ideas as Johnny Cash was. He recounted the tale to 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.” Once Reznor saw the video, however, he was convinced of the new version’s power.

Buy or stream American IV: The Man Comes Around.

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