Johnny Cash was a prolific, gifted songwriter who made a profound contribution to the American Songbook. His influence as a writer, performer, and pop-culture personality transcends the Country music genre and his compositions have been covered live and on record by a diverse range of artists, from Pearl Jam to Leonard Nimoy.
Of course, Cash also recorded many songs written by others during his five-decade career. Today we’ll be looking at one of those performances. Now, cover versions of songs are often difficult for me to appreciate – inevitably I find myself unfavorably comparing the cover to the original. That’s why I admire Cash’s ability to make a song definitively his own, whether he wrote it or not. His performance style is unmistakable, and most often he brought something quite special to the songs he performed.
I think Cash surprised a lot of people with his choice of material during his later years, as he covered songs by Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, Danzig, and others – but it’s worth noting that Cash’s musical tastes have always been adventurous and eclectic. Cash and Bob Dylan, for example, might not seem very far removed from one another today, but there was quite a gulf between their respective fan bases in the mid-1960s when Cash began championing Dylan as a writer and recording his songs. In many ways, I see the cover songs on Cash’s American Recordings albums as a natural continuation of his openness to younger performers and new ideas.
On his 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around Cash chose to record Hurt, a song written by Trent Reznor that originally appeared on the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral. NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine (1989), with its danceable blend of adolescent nihilism and mild misogyny, was a big favorite of mine in high school, and I had enjoyed the transition to a harder-edged sound on the 1992 EP Broken. I liked Closer, the biggest single from The Downward Spiral, but somehow the rest of the album didn’t make much of an impact on me. In retrospect, however, Reznor’s original recording of Hurt is one of the best moments on the album – a cautionary tale of poor choices, self-destructive behaviors, and their ultimate consequences. Though he introduces the possibility of “starting again” in the final verse, I can’t help but think, “yeah, that’ll never happen…” Sadly, there are some mistakes that can’t be undone.
Cash’s version of the song has a far different feel to me. Where I see Reznor’s performance of Hurt primarily as a lesson in how not to live ones’ life, I have a great deal of empathy for Cash throughout the song as he strives to be a better person despite his flaws and failings. Part of the difference, I’m sure, has to do with my knowledge of the rough spots in Cash’s life – a failed marriage, struggles with addiction, and years of living both fast and hard. Interested parties can refer to either of Cash’s autobiographies, Man in Black or Cash: The Autobiography, for details.
Cash’s failing health also infuses his performance on Hurt with a curious, fragile gravitas that I find quite appropriate to the song. I’m not saying that Trent Reznor didn’t speak from experience when he wrote Hurt, but Cash’s performance seems to struggle to be heard from under the weight of many misspent years. I feel his regret for mistakes made and relationships irreparably damaged, but I also sense a possibility of redemption that I find missing from the original recording. Cash makes me believe that he’s learned hard lessons and just might “find a way” to salvation as he approaches the end of life. Cash and Nine Inch Nails might seem an unlikely combination, but for me, Hurt is one of the high points of Cash’s later career.