Who Wrote the Painfully Beautiful Song “Hurt”?

If you’re sad, there is one song above all others that you can play that really pinpoints that emotion. It’s the slow, sullen tune called “Hurt.” You’ve probably heard the Johnny Cash rendition of the song, his big, full rich voice bleeding out.

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But did Cash write the song? If not, where did it come from? And how did it become one of his signature songs—especially so towards the end of his life? Without further ado, let’s dive into the origin story of the painfully beautiful song “Hurt.”

The Downward Spiral

In 1994, Nine Inch Nails released its sophomore album, The Downward Spiral. The LP, which was released in 1995, included the song “Hurt,” which was written solely by Reznor. While The Downward Spiral was released in March of 1994, the single “Hurt” was released about a year later on April 17, 1995.

While no longer the most popular version of the song, “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails nevertheless was quite popular, with its restrained, dramatic, and, yes, painful delivery by vocalist and producer Reznor. The track earned Nine Inch Nails a Grammy nomination in 1996 for Best Rock Song.

Nine Inch Nails

Just the name itself sounds painful. The Cleveland, Ohio-born group founded by Trent Reznor and later included Atticus Ross (yes, the same duo that has become the darlings of the film score scene; see: The Social Network), was known for gut- and heart-wrenching music in the 1990s—often called industrial rock or industrial metal. For examples, see songs like “Happiness in Slavery” and “Wish.” The band to date has sold tens of millions of records.

Johnny Cash

Eight years after Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral, country icon Johnny Cash cut a version of the song “Hurt” for his debut, American Recordings, recorded with super-producer Rick Rubin.

Since then, “Hurt” has become like other all-time great songs, such as Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which, despite being written by famous and accomplished artists, get taken over in the best of ways by others. As Whitney Houston did with Parton’s ode.

Reznor has said Cash’s recording includes “sincerity and meaning” and “that song isn’t mine anymore.”

The Dark Meaning

More than any specific subject matter, the song reads like a suicide note. Befitting of Nine Inch Nails’ almost grotesque sense of inner turmoil. But the song was apt for Cash, who recorded his version near the end of his life. Listeners’ could feel the years and age and near-breaking-point in Cash’s voice. And the music video for the song has since been dubbed one of the greatest ever, showing vulnerability and offering a window into the human life cycle, as Cash is 70 years old and likely months before his eventual passing.

Photo by R. Diamond/Getty Images

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