26 February 2021-
In honor of Johnny Cash's birthday, we figured we'd revisit one of the more telling stories of the legend's later life...
So many things can be said about the Man in black’s storied career: his early Sun Records work, his singing in prisons, his relationship with wife and partner June… So many things and so little space, so we decided instead to focus on one of the final episodes of Johnny Cash‘s life: the recording, filming and release of “Hurt”. Originally a Nine Inch Nails song from the band’s 1994 album The Downward Spiral (probably a sign…), it had gotten some notice then, including a Grammy nomination. But it had not entered the zeitgeist the way Cash’s version would. Not by a landslide.
This story effectively starts with superstar producer Rick Rubin, the man who launched the Beastie Boys — and, in large part, Hip Hop itself. Known for his radical eclecticism, Rubin also worked with a lot of rock outfits and happened to be a Cash fan (as any musically inclined individual should be, really). In the 1990’s, he decided to reach out to the now faded star and offered him a deal to help resurrect his career. The resulting album, also released in 1994, was called American Recordings and did just that: not only was it an instant success, but it spawned a series of critically and commercially acclaimed albums which cemented Cash’s place in musical history alongside the Elvis Presleys and Bob Dylans of this world (good company to be in, really).
By 2002’s American Recordings IV, the choice was made to place the emphasis on covers (which did not prevent Cash from writing one of his last gems for the occasion: “The man comes around”). Although “Hurt” wasn’t his, Cash in many managed to reclaim the song, making it feel so utterly personal that the accompanying video had him and his wife take center stage in one of the most simple, yet touching music videos ever made. June Cash died a few months later, Johnny Cash a few months after that. American Recordings IV was the last album to be released in his lifetime.
Cash’s version of “Hurt”, although incredibly simple and raw, with the man’s voice notably frailer than had famously been, not only managed to eclipse the original, but came to define the artist’s later work. And, in many ways, the way true musicians see life — indistinguishable from music itself…