Rick Rubin: My Life in 21 Songs

From LL Cool J to Kanye West, Slayer to Tom Petty, Johnny Cash to Dixie Chicks, producer reflects on more than three decades of challenging music's status quo

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Johnny Cash, "Hurt" (2003)

Johnny and I would make collections of songs as possible covers for him to sing, and we'd send them to each other. "Hurt" was one that I sent. There were maybe 20 songs including that one on the mix I made, and it wasn't one that he responded to. But I had a strong feeling about it, so on the next compilation, I included that one again. Because of the way the Nine Inch Nails song sounds, I think it was hard for him to hear it. So I sent him the lyrics, and I said, "Just read the lyrics. If you like the lyrics, then we'll find a way to do it that will suit you."

He listened to it with the lyrics sheet and said, "If you feel strongly about this, we can try it." We recorded at my house in Los Angeles. We built all of it from scratch. It's an acoustic song, so it was recorded as a smaller acoustic song than it ended up becoming, and through overdubs, we built all the drama that's in the song to support the power of the words and the way Johnny was delivering them.

He was at a time where his health was failing, and I tried to pick songs that made sense lyrically for the way his voice was sounding. There were times when his voice sounded broken. He tried to turn that into a positive in the selection of the music. He was awfully troubled by the way his voice was sounding. A lot of times during the process, he would be down on himself. He could always rely on his voice, and at this stage he couldn't. It was a real struggle for him. But then, when we put everything together and it was done, he would love it.

This is another song where I can't think of the song without seeing the video. The first time I saw it, I just cried. It really upset me. It's a really beautiful piece of art and I'm proud of him for letting people see it. When his management first saw they were like, "Nobody can ever see this." And it was really Rosanne [Cash], his daughter, that made the case to Johnny that, "You're an artist — this is what you do, and you have to show this." He was like, "You're right." He agreed. And the video came out. She was the one.

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