Above: Johnny Cash, photographed by Harry Langdon
Before it became cool to like Johnny Cash in the nineties, it was decidedly uncool. At least according to Trent Reznor, who grew up in small-town America trying to escape the country music establishment. For the Nine Inch Nails frontman, Rick Rubin’s legacy-shaping production on Cash’s famed American series was the first time the country singer’s stripped down genius and rich baritone struck a chord in him—one that continues to echo in Reznor’s own productions today.
The late Johnny Cash only became the focus of my attention when Rick Rubin asked me if I thought it was cool for him to record my song “Hurt” for the album American IV: The Man Comes Around. That was in 2002, but I was certainly aware of Johnny Cash before that. Actually, I’ve known about him my whole life. But it wasn’t until Rick Rubin stripped away all the unnecessary trappings of whatever era he’d released music before and refocused Cash into a new direction that I really started paying attention. This was the beginning of a series of great albums—all of which featured that uniquely sparse sound consisting only of Johnny Cash’s voice and a guitar. I thought that the first album, American Recordings, was such a bold move because it suddenly became obvious that reducing the songs to their core was what really mattered. This was about his songwriting and voice and persona… and nothing else.
When I started to work on the—how shall I put it?— Nine Inch Nails “comeback” album Hesitation Marks, I remember telling The New Yorker in an interview that I wanted the album to sound open and Johnny Cash-like. I guess American Recordings really had left a strong impression on me. And even though Hesitation Marks eventually didn’t turn out to become that sparse and ascetic, it was still driven by the idea to use as few parts as possible—just my voice and a drum machine. I don’t remember any other Nine Inch Nails album that was so reduced to the core of what I wanted to say and I certainly don’t recall any other musician who has influenced me that much recently. A lot of this has to do with Cash’s natural authority and sense of style.
Having said that, I have to stress the fact that I was the opposite of a Johnny Cash fan before. I always thought of him as a country and western has-been and the exact opposite of what I considered cool as a kid growing up in a little town called Mercer, Pennsylvania. This was true even when I started making music in Cleveland years later. But as a teenager, I was against whatever my little town was all about, and since it was a country and western town, I also hated Johnny Cash. In my adolescent ignorance I saw him as a representation of a lifestyle I wanted to escape, strange as it is to say. But after maturing I was of course flattered when Rick finally sent me Cash’s version of “Hurt”, even though this is an extremely personal song and it still sounds strange in my ears to hear another man singing these lyrics… even if it is the man in black.
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 36 (4, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.