You don’t even have to be intimately familiar with country music to be fully aware of just how important the American Recordings era was at the end of Johnny Cash’s life and career. Pairing up with legendary producer Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash not only revitalized his career, he ensconced himself as an international superstar, crossing genre barriers and international borders, and making his name synonymous with American music in perpetuity through this work. But it all may have been relegated to virtual obscurity if it wasn’t for a video Johnny Cash shot 20 years ago today, October 18th, 2002.
The collaboration with Rick Rubin began in 1994 with the original American Recordings album released to nearly universal acclaim. It was just Johnny Cash, his guitar, and classic songs. Unchained in 1996 added a bit more instrumentation from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, members of Fleetwood Mac, and Marty Stuart. The third installment Solitary Man saw the momentum of the franchise starting to slip. But it was the fourth record, American IV: The Man Comes Around where everything was blown wide open.
As successful as the American Recordings albums were, they were still very much an element of the underground. Knowledge of them was passed around in indie rock circles, among audiophiles and fellow musicians, and within the burgeoning underground country music scene. Mainstream country wouldn’t touch them, prompting Rick Rubin to take out a full page ad with a photo of Johnny Cash flipping the bird during his prison albums era in the late 60s, “thanking” country radio and Nashville for all of their support after Unchained won the Grammy for “Best Country Album.”
Everything changed in 2002 though, and it wasn’t just due to the release of American IV: The Man Comes Around . It was specifically due to the song “Hurt”—a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song written by Trent Reznor. And even more specifically, it had to do with the video that accompanied the song.
Johnny Cash was initially skeptical about working with Rick Rubin. He wanted to give his career one last hurrah after having been abandoned by the country music industry proper, but he also didn’t know if Rick Rubin would have the right approach. Rubin assured Cash that all creative control would remain his. But the genius of Rick Rubin was challenging Johnny Cash to stretch his palette with songs outside of his comfort zone. This came about with songs like Beck’s “Rowboat,” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” It was Rubin who brought “Hurt” to Cash, and Cash immediately warmed to it. It was Trent Reznor who was more skeptical of the idea.
Trent Reznor wrote “Hurt” in his bedroom in the midst of an existential crisis, and it ended up as the final track on the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral. There was already a version of the song out there that changed the one line “crown of shit” to “crown of thorns” for radio play, and this fit right into the religious connotations that were already heavy within Johnny Cash’s American Recordings material. When Reznor heard Johnny Cash’s recording of “Hurt,” he was not impressed. “It didn’t sound bad, it just sounded something wrong, it sounded alien,” Reznor said.
Nonetheless, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin moved forward, choosing “Hurt” to be the centerpiece single from the new album, and the one to splurge on a big budget video for. Movie Director Mark Romanek was brought in, who’d worked with Trent Reznor on the video for the NIN song “Closer.” At this point, Johnny Cash was frail, and Romanek had the idea of capturing him in his native element. Johnny Cash’s famous Hendersonville estate on Old Hickory Lake was selected as the location for the video. This is where the shots of Cash sitting at the dining room table were taken.
But when Mark Romanek discovered the abandoned “House of Cash” museum and gift shop nearby on Main St. in Hendersonville, he chose to incorporate this location into the video shoot as well. This is where he also discovered the vintage film footage that he used in the video. “It had been closed for a long time; the place was in such a state of dereliction,” Romanek told Rolling Stone in 2003. “That’s when I got the idea that maybe we could be extremely candid about the state of Johnny’s health, as candid as Johnny has always been in his songs.”
The disordered and decaying ornaments and memorabilia of the House of Cash made for the perfect backdrop and metaphor for Johnny Cash’s declining health, relevancy, and the sense of abandonment he felt. It added to the hoary sense of finality hanging in the air. And then of course there was Johnny Cash himself—his face so imbued with the age of a tumultuous life lived and partially paralyzed at the age of 71, but still proud and defiant in its own way.
It was very specifically the video for “Hurt” that took all the effort that had been expended throughout the six years of the American Recordings experiment, and sent it into the stratosphere. When the video was released to the public, tears poured down the faces of anyone and everyone within the audience, with fans palpably feeling the gravity of an incredible life lived slowly coming to a close, and the exhalation of motions that the video allowed to unfold.
Rick Rubin had not tinkered with the recording of “Hurt” one bit. But when he presented the video of the song to Trent Reznor, the industrial rocker was completely captivated, calling it an “unbelievably powerful piece of work.”
“I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow,” Trent Reznor said. “[I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”
The release of the “Hurt” video was one of the most important moments in American music history. Where the previously three American Recordings albums all failed to sell more than 250,000 copies, American IV: The Man Comes Around went Platinum, and #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. Where all the previous American Recordings albums had been ignored by the country mainstream, The Man Comes Around won the CMA Award for Album of the Year in 2003.
The “Hurt” video itself ended up being nominated for seven MTV Music Video Awards, and won for Best Cinematography. It also won the Grammy for Best Video in 2004. But Johnny Cash would not be around to accept it. He passed away on September 12th, 2003, at an apex of influence and popularity in his career, thanks in large part to the video for “Hurt.”
In fact, the song and video became so popular, they spilled out into the wideer culture. Teenage kids from the suburbs became Johnny Cash fans, as did hip-hop fans from the intercity. They all found a cultural icon in Johnny Cash. From Europe to Asia, to every Hot Topic mall outlet in America, you could find Johnny Cash T-shirts and plenty of people to wear them, almost to the point where it became parody, and people began to backlash against Johnny Cash as fashion.
Canadian songwriter Fred Eaglesmith released his own song and video called “Johnny Cash,” mocking fans who had forgotten about Cash when his career was in decline, but became fans once again after he was dead. “You sure did like when he sang the Nine Inch Nails, when he looked like he was dying in that video,” the song goes. “You loved that picture when he was giving them the finger, too bad about all that religion. But you sure do like Johnny Cash now.”
But regardless of how co-opted some felt their cultural icon Johnny Cash had become, the video for “Hurt” spread awareness of Johnny Cash and country music by proxy across the globe, and firmly ensconced Johnny Cash as one of the very topmost cultural figures in the history of the world. Not a bad feat for a 4-minute video.