Can you name the only musician who is (a) going into this Grammy week with nominations in folk and country categories as well as (b) hearing his music on VH1 and MTV2? Some hints: He is the only 70-year-old artist getting regular airplay on modern-rock giant KROQ-FM (106.7) and public radio tastemaker KCRW-FM (89.9), and his new music video is so poignant that Bono, David Bowie and Trent Reznor have raved about it as a standout achievement in the genre.
The simple answer: The Man in Black is back.
Johnny Cash is as unlikely a success story as you will find these days, thanks to his unvarnished take on the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt."
"It's a captivating, amazing song, and stations such as KROQ should be praised for hearing how it transcends genre," said Jeff Pollack, a leading radio consultant. "And then when you see the video, it makes it even more unforgettable."
The song is from his album "American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around," released in November, but the track has drawn interest in recent weeks due to a wrenching video by director Mark Romanek. "I've made about 40 music videos and I've been doing this for about 12 years," said Romanek, who directed last year's Robin Williams drama "One Hour Photo." "But I've never had a reaction to anything like this video is getting."
Cash's spare vocals and Reznor's lyrics of loss make for emotional listening, and Romanek adds to the melancholy with images from concerts, films and other Cash career moments intercut with new 35-millimeter footage of the now-frail singer in his home. The juxtapositions are made all the more affecting by the presence of his wife, June Carter Cash.
"Most videos are about creating eye candy, a pretty image that can be a marketing tool," Romanek said. "We just tried to show the simple truth of what's going on in his life. It's kind of a sucker punch when you see it the first time because we're not used to that emotional depth in music videos."
Rick Rubin, the producer of Cash's last four albums, said the video is now a historical document. "I cried the first time I saw it.... I spoke to Bono and he compared what Johnny is doing now to what Elvis Presley did in the 1950s. Then, Elvis represented a new youth culture and it shocked and terrified everyone because culture wasn't about youth before him. Now we live in a youth culture and Johnny Cash is showing the experience of a much older generation. It's just as radical."
The video for Cash's "Hurt" can be seen online at www.markromanek.com /video/14.html.
-- Geoff Boucher