Track of the Day: 'Hurt' by Johnny Cash

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

No playlist of transformative cover songs would be complete without this classic Nine Inch Nails cover by Johnny Cash:

The music video for “Hurt” directed by Mark Romanek took home a Grammy in 2003. Cash and I share a birthday—today, February 26. He would’ve been 84. On Cash’s distinct singing style, here’s Francis David in a piece from our March 2004 issue titled “God’s Lonely Man”:

To read his obituaries, one might think that his credibility as a singer depended entirely on his credibility as a man. True, he never developed his upper range to the point where he could trust it, and the clear emphasis he gave every single word would have precluded gliding from note to note even if he had been able to. Among the singers of his own generation he lacked the bravura and the sheer lung power of such country Carusos as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, Ferlin Husky, and the young Waylon Jennings. We tend not to value deep voices as much as we do high, soaring ones, perhaps because the effort involved in producing a low note is less apparent. Something about hearing a singer go low strikes most ears as a trick, a human special effect. The bass singer does the grunt work in doo-wop and rhythm and blues, sometimes literally.

There is a style of country music, however, in which a male singer's descent to a virile low note at the end of a phrase, or for the closing chorus, supplies the same payoff as a soul singer’s falsetto-one conveys masculine certainty and the other uncontrollable passion, but each signifies a moment of truth. No country singer was better at this than Cash, and few singers in any field of music have been as expressive or as instantly recognizable.

Happy birthday, Mr. Cash.

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