Rick Rubin says Johnny Cash looked at him like he “was insane” when he first played him Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt

Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash
(Image credit: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images; Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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Best of 2022: Rick Rubin has been recounting his collaboration with Johnny Cash, and revealed how the country icon thought was “he was done” before a late-stage revival that saw the Man In Black make some of his most successful records of his career.

Emblematic of Cash’s revival was Hurt, the Nine Inch Nails song that he made his own. But speaking to Lauren Larverne on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Rubin admitted that Hurt was a tough sell. When Cash heard the original, taken from Nine Inch Nails’ seminal 1994 album The Downward Spiral, he had his reservations. Rubin had to sketch out how it might sound with acoustic guitar before Cash could see the cover’s potential.

“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,” Rubin said. “Johnny was wary! [Laughs] 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.’”

In a wide-ranging interview – ostensibly to find out which records Rubin would take to a desert island with him – the producer, whose credits include Beastie Boys, RHCP and Metallica, discussed his much debated methodology. Where some producers micro-manage, Rubin is famously hands-off. He chooses to listen to the takes barefooted, in repose, eyes closed, because only then in this relaxed, quasi-Zen state can he tell if the music is eliciting the required emotional response. 

He also revealed that he has just produced a new album with The Strokes, and the follow-up to 2020’s The New Abnormal was recorded on top of a mountain in Costa Rica, overlooking the ocean.

While Johnny Cash never made it onto the desert island with Rubin – spoilers: none of the albums he produced did – he nonetheless spoke at length about their work together, which then, as now was radical and invigorating, presenting Cash as a melancholic troubadour who had seen it all. As Rubin says, that’s how Cash was.

“He wasn’t well enough to tour anymore,” Rubin said. “His partner was gone. And his choice was to die or to carry on, and he chose to carry on.”

He wasn’t well enough to tour anymore. His partner was gone. And his choice was to die or to carry on, and he chose to carry on

Rick Rubin

When Rubin first met Cash, Cash had no idea who Rubin was, nor could he understand why anyone would want to work with him. Cash believed his race was all but run.

“He didn’t know who I was, but 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. “I didn’t convince him. We just say and talked for a while, and 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.”

Asked how he chose the songs Cash should perform, Rubin explained that they all had to fit with the legend and mythos of Johnny Cash. That’s why Hurt worked so well. 

“I thought of the image of Johnny Cash as the mythical man in black, and any song he sang had to suit this mythical man in black,” Rubin said. “And one of the ones that seemed to have resonated with people after we did it was the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt. And if you listen to the words, it’s like looking back over a life of regret and remorse.” 

I thought of the image of Johnny Cash as the mythical man in black, and any song he sang had to suit this mythical man in black

Rick Rubin

Rubin said he and Cash bonded over religion. Rubin, who was raised Jewish, told Cash about how he had learned about the healing power of communion from watching the televangelist Dr Jean Scott, who was then dying of cancer but declined treatment and shared his experience with his congregation. Both took communion together.

“I was raised Jewish; I had never done communion, and I said, ‘Next time we get together, maybe we can do communion together,’” Rubin Said. “And we did. Every day we spoke together on the phone, and every day we would do communion together. He spoke the words, and I visualised it, I closed my eyes and visualised what he was saying, and said ‘Amen’ with him, and it was a beautiful ritual. And I continued on after he passed. I continued doing it and I could hear his voice leading it, because we had done it long enough. I was in tune with it.”

You can listen to Rick Rubin on Desert Island Discs over at BBC Sounds, where he chooses eight discs to take to an island (plus a book and a luxury item), and talks in depth about various stages of his career.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.