How Rick Rubin Talked Johnny Cash Into Covering Nine Inch Nails
Rick Rubin recalled persuading Johnny Cash to record a cover of Nine Inch Nails' classic song “Hurt” – resulting in a version that also became a classic.
The stripped-down take appeared on Cash’s 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around. It was one of a series of records he made with producer Rubin in a project that began in 1994 and led to a resurgence in the legendary singer’s career.
“He wasn’t well enough to tour anymore,” Rubin told the BBC in a recent interview (via Musicradar). “His partner was gone. And his choice was to die or to carry on, and he chose to carry on.” He explained that, when they first met, Cash didn’t know anything about him. “He wanted to understand why I would want to work with him, because why would anyone want to work with him? In his mind, he was done.”
Rubin said he didn't try to convince Cash of anything: “I said, ‘Well, let’s just sit down and play me songs you love, and we’ll figure out what to do.’ He sat in my living room and he just started playing me these songs, most of which I had never heard - old country songs, or old folk songs, and it was magnificent.”
Watch Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ Video
Rubin focused on Cash’s image as “the mythical Man in Black” and that’s why “Hurt” came to mind. “If you listen to the words, it’s like looking back over a life of regret and remorse,” the producer said. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a case of just going ahead.
“I played him the song first, and Johnny just looked at me like I was insane because the Nine Inch Nails version of the song is very noisy, aggressive. Johnny was wary! And I think I did a demo where I had a guitar player play it, and I said the words the way I imagined him 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.’”