The real reason Johnny Cash covered Hurt by Nine Inch Nails

The word "legend" gets thrown around a lot, but there's no question that it applies to Johnny Cash. He hit the country scene running with 1957's Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! which included little-known tunes called "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line." He went on to live a roller coaster life full of success, tragedy, turmoil, and increasing mainstream fame, and left behind five decades of music, with more hits than most of us can name on one setting.

Cash has a truly astounding legacy, and enough signature songs to fill a set list. That's why it's pretty strange that one of the songs most associated with him actually belongs to a band from a very, very different genre. "Hurt," the incredibly moving second single from 2002's American IV: The Man Comes Around, carries the significance of being the most famous song from the last album Cash released during his lifetime. Curiously, it's also a cover of a popular Nine Inch Nails song from their 1994 album, The Downward Spiral. What could have prompted the country legend to turn his gaze toward an industrial rock song

Here is the real reason that the famous Man in Black covered "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails.

American Recordings made the Man in Black the epitome of cool

To understand the trajectory that would allow Johnny Cash and a Nine Inch Nails song to be mentioned in the same sentence, we must first look at the album that revitalized him in the public eye. Cash was already quite the cool kid of country, but as an interview with Rolling Stone's Jancee Dunn shows us, the rest of the world caught on in 1994. This was the year Cash released American Recordings, a sparsely-produced album of stripped-down original material and covers from people like Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. In late 1993, he had already played at the legendary Viper Room, according to Setlist, and there were even rumors of a Lollapalooza appearance — something that was not often associated with an old-school country musician. 

Cash was now in with the hip crowd, and a lot of this was thanks to American Recordings producer Rick Rubin. As Kory Grow of Rolling Stone tells us, Rick Rubin is the co-founder of Def Jam records, and has produced acts like Eminem, Jay-Z, LL Cool J and Run-DMC. As such, he might not seem like the most obvious guy to produce Johnny Cash ... at least, until you read on, and note that his resume also includes acts ranging from Metallica and Slayer, to Tom Petty and The Dixie Chicks.

Rick Rubin works his magic

According to Johnny Black of Louder, Rick Rubin became interested in Johnny Cash because he wanted to work with "a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment." Manager Lou Robin set up a meeting between the two in 1993, and though Cash initially dismissed Rubin as a run-in-the-mill record company guy, the producer won him over with a simple idea. According to Cash, Rubin's proposition was: "Well, I don't know that we will sell records. I would like you to sit in my living room with a guitar and two microphones and just sing to your heart's content, everything you ever wanted to record." Understandably, this worked just fine with Cash. 

Rubin kept his promise of creative freedom and lo-fi simplicity. His wide-ranging musical tastes allowed for a method of production that was light on studio grind and heavy on friendly interaction between him and Cash, with the producer introducing the artist to new, exciting music. When they worked on the first American Recordings, they used this method to record around 70 songs over a period of nine months, and it's probably safe to say that this novel approach paid off. In a 2004 interview with WBUR, Rubin said that from that point on, they were basically always working, recording sporadically whenever the ailing artist felt he was up to it.  

Trent Reznor loses a song

As Alex Howlett of Financial Times writes, Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" finally made it to the fourth installment of the American Recordings series in 2002. Rick Rubin had sent Cash the song before, but the singer couldn't identify with its industrial style. This time, Rubin sent him the lyrics as well, and after Cash gave it a second shot, he told the producer: "If you feel strongly about this, we can try it."

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor was slightly more doubtful, as Radio X notes. "Hurt" was an intensely personal thing he had written during a period of severe depression, and he initially perceived the idea of a Johnny Cash version as "gimmicky." However, when Rubin came calling, Reznor gave his permission to cover the track, which Cash chose to interpret truthfully to his situation at the time: Instead of Reznor's young man's anguish, Cash sang "Hurt" as a man whose health was failing and who was nearing his death.

Initially, Reznor was conflicted about the end result, describing it as "weird" and "like I was watching my girlfriend f**k somebody else." However, when he saw the music video, which paired Cash's powerful, yet fragile version to imagery of the elderly singer in the eerie environment of the House of Cash museum, Reznor realized the impact of the country legend's take on "Hurt," a cover song that has become more famous than the original. "I just lost my girlfriend," the Nine Inch Nail star said, "Because that song isn't mine anymore."