With its vulnerable, unflinching depiction of Johnny Cash‘s deteriorating health, the video for Cash’s stark interpretation of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” captured the attention of not only the country community, but the entire music industry. Even MTV, then still in the throes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, recognized the brilliant gravity of “Hurt. When the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards nominations were announced 11 years ago today, Cash’s clip received six nods, including one for Video of the Year.
Directed by Mark Romanek, the “Hurt” video deftly intertwined images of Cash, 71 at the time, with footage of the Man in Black in his prime. He’s seen hopping trains, performing his famous prison concerts and celebrating with wife June Carter Cash. Cash’s longtime love also appeared in the video, keeping watch over her failing husband’s shoulder as he strummed his guitar; she would die shortly afterward, in May 2003.
It is the images of two houses, however, that deliver the video’s gut-punch. In a flashback, Cash is seen visiting his childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. It is in disrepair, dilapidated and lonesome — in marked contrast to the ongoing renovation of the property today by Arkansas State University. The other home is equally damaged: Cash’s once public museum, the House of Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. Full of dusty awards, statues and other once relevant ephemera, the shuttered tribute to Cash’s heyday was a metaphor for the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s own broken body.
Despite its six Video Music Awards nominations, Romanek’s “Hurt” would win only one Moonman trophy, for Best Cinematography, when the VMAs were held on August 28th, 2003. Justin Timberlake, however, would dedicate his trophy for Best Male Video, for “Cry Me a River,” to fellow nominee Cash from the stage. “My grandfather raised me on Johnny Cash. I’m from Tennessee. And I think he deserves this more than any of us in here tonight,” Timberlake said.
Cash died the following month, on September 12th, from respiratory failure due to complications from diabetes. “Hurt,” to many, stands as his final goodbye.