Friday, November 14, 2008

Hurt by Johnny Cash

“I HATE country music.”

Through the groans and protests, I insisted that we were going to listen to some country music in the music theory class I taught last year. We started each class listening to different kinds of music to expand our musical knowledge. I felt it was important to discuss all genres of music so one day I told the class that day that we would explore to country music.

One student asked, “well, who are we doing to listen to?”

“Johnny Cash,” I answered.

“That’s ok, Johnny Cash rocks. I hate country music, but Johnny Cash is different. He’s more then country” replied the student.

Great people in our society transcend the labels that we put upon them. Abraham Lincoln was more then just a president. Albert Einstein was more then just a scientist and Johnny Cash was more then just a country musician. Johnny Cash was a force of nature. He was an artist that never compromised his integrity and never forgot the audience who he continued to serve until days before he died. He was not a saint, but he was a man, flawed like all of us but empathetic like so few of us.

In 2002, “Hurt” introduced Johnny Cash to a new generation and reintroduced Johnny Cash to the world. Rick Rubin, one of popular music’s most influence producers, started a new series of albums in which Rubin presented a raw and intimate Cash. These albums featured Cash covering modern popular music, older country music and new songs written by Cash himself. The fourth album they did together American IV: The Man Comes Around featured “Hurt” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song by Trent Reznor which represents some of Cash’s best work.

This song speaks from the voice of a man in depression. He is looking back at failed life full of regret and pain.

[Verse 1]
I hurt myself today to see if I still feel
I focus on the pain the only thing that's real
the needle tears a hole the old familiar sting
try to kill it all away but I remember everything

The lyrics in this first verse are uncomfortable raw. Self-abuse and drug use are subjects that make us feel uneasy and what is truly striking is how aware the narrator is of his actions. He knows that he is trying to escape the pain of remembering a life and he knows he is failing. The “old familiar sting” tell us that he has done this many times, and many times before the drugs did not help him kill the pain of remembering.

what have I become?
my sweetest friend
everyone I know goes away in the end
and you could have it all my empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

The chorus is not so much about self-doubt but the inevitability of pain in life. Everyone this person knows has left. We don’t know if it’s through death or loss of a friendship but he is left with nothing. He has been let down and hurt so much that he believes it is inevitable for him to do the same.

The second verse reflects elaborates the first verse with a feeling of helplessness and the passage of time that separate us from people around us as it makes feelings disappear. The chorus that follows has the same lyrics and where the first chorus stops the second chorus continues.

If I could start again a million miles away.
I would keep myself, I would find a way.

Even though he admits in the end that he would find a way, it’s only through a distance too far to imagine. There is no chance in his life that things could improve, so all he can do is hang on to the slight possibility that maybe he could have made things different.

There are different musical sounds that describe the range of human emotion. Many times when we think of musical expression, we think of express joy through the sound of a beautiful orchestra. Sometimes we forget there is also musical sounds that bring out darker feelings in ourselves. The guitar line that starts the song is bare like a tree in the dead of winter that has long forgotten the memory of its leaves. Low sounds on the piano echo mysteriously in the first verse. Then right before the chorus, the piano begins playing the same note, constantly and incessantly throughout the entire chorus. It starts out like a bell tolling in the distance but then comes to the forefront. This ugly sound hammers at our ears like a mistake that refuse to forgotten as it that take over our minds like a specter of doom.

The second verse provides some aural relief and the piano note begins again. The piano note slowly comes to the forefront and where we it in the first chorus, it continues. The sound builds to peak and you feel like the music is about to explode. Rick Rubin distorts the recording like a speaker that is turned up too loud on purpose at the end of the song to add another layer of intensity. It makes us feel like things are shaking apart until the texture draws back and we are left with Cash’s voice.

Johnny Cash’s baritone voice is one of the expressive in popular music. His voice is distinctively country in the way he shapes his notes. At the end of every line in the fist verse, he lands on the last note purposely under the pitch and glides back up to pitch at the end of the note. This “twang” gives a color and shape to the notes working around the pitch to give distinct feeling of longing that characterizes so much of country music.

Johnny Cash was seventy years old when he recorded “Hurt.” Few, if any artists produce music at this age and even fewer of those create some of their best work at this age. Some things get better with time. Great whiskey over time becomes pure. The true core of the flavor comes forward as the impurities diminish. Johnny Cash’s voice reflected a long life filled with many emotions and his art purified towards the end expressing raw emotion, closer to the human heart then many dare to explore.

I listen to “Hurt,” and I feel sad, torn up and afraid, but somehow safe because he is there. Johnny Cash reminds us that even when going through the darkness in our life we are never alone. In solitude, we can find solace in that belief. Johnny Cash is more then country. He is more then a singer and he is more the music. Johnny Cash is the feeling right after the tears have stopped that reminds us that only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.


  1. The music video to this is disturbing.
    Think the scene from LoTR:RotK, where Pippin is singing for the Steward during his meal. Very creepy, only "Hurt" was in black and white.
    (Who was the outspoken student in your music theory class=)?)

  2. I remember seeing this video for the first time and just feeling completely emotionally drained. The director of the video is Mark Romanek. He directed the film, One Hour Photo, and a bunch of other great videos. You can check his stuff out at:

    His video for Fiona Apple's Criminal is great as well.