Johnny Cash’s empire of dirt and the truths that make us human

August 21, 2012 | 47 comments

The other day I was in great need of some inspiration, and I found it in the most unlikely of places: the video for Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.

I know. When someone says “Johnny Cash” and “Nine Inch Nails” in the same sentence, combined with references to songs that talk about someone cutting himself and lamenting his “empire of dirt, ” you don’t immediately think: INSPIRING!

But it was. And I spent all weekend wondering why.

This happens fairly regularly: A book or a video or a movie or a song leaves me bubbling with excitement, overflowing with inspiration, feeling like I’m ready to go out and be the best woman and mother and wife and Catholic that I can be. Yet when I consider its message I see that it’s not exactly straight out of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It may even involve some profanity or depictions of people doing stupid and immoral things, which makes it all the more perplexing that it would inspire me to be a better Christian.

I watched the video of Cash’s Hurt a few more times, soaking in his soulful and weary voice as he sung a tale of disappointment and futility, and each time I asked myself why such a video would seem to be of God in some way. After about the fifth time I watched it, it finally clicked:

This video speaks the truth about what it means to be human.

Throughout the song, the visuals cut back and forth between grainy clips from Cash’s glamorous rockstar heyday, and recent shots of the abandoned and crumbling Johnny Cash Museum. We see the legendary Man in Black looking old and feeble, his hands visibly shaking in some of the scenes (he would die only seven months after the filming). In a series of images starting at 1:20, we see the young Johnny Cash up on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. We see the superstar in action, and understand on a visceral level how this good-looking, vital, talented young man could become such a powerhouse that he would have his own museum. Then, only seconds later, as current Cash draws out the line My empire of dirt, we cut to the museum today. It’s abandoned. Posters, autographed pictures, and other memorabilia bearing the young Cash’s image have been tossed in a heap in a corner. Glass shelves are empty and covered with dust. A framed collector’s item record sits behind shattered glass. A 1970s-style cash register sits silently on a countertop, a cruel reminder of the years when the world still adored Johnny Cash.

This video speaks the truth, and it speaks the truth in a particularly Christian way. This is not to say that the song’s lyrics would make good instructional material for catechism class; rather, it is its theme that does the truth-telling. It depicts an accurate spiritual landscape upon which the human life plays out.

You can achieve the height of worldly glory and fame, and it won’t last, Johnny Cash tells us through this video. It’s an empire of dirt. And that is true. It makes us feel more human, because it’s an articulation of spiritual realities that only humans know about.

Imagine a movie whose theme was, Sometimes it’s good for married people to have affairs, or Smoking crack can make your life better. Even if such a film tried to be positive, it would ultimately have a dispiriting, dehumanizing effect, because it lies about the truths of the human experience. The closer we get to God, the more human we become; but we can’t get closer to God if we don’t understand the spiritual landscape in which our souls move and live.

I often fantasize about starting an arts patronage fund to help out artists who create work that brings people closer to God. (The fact that I have no money and have no idea what such an organization would look like does not deter me at all — hey, it’s fantasy!) I’ve given out millions of dollars in grants as well as multiple prestigious awards in my imagination, and the process has led me to ask over and over again: What constitutes God-glorifying art? Certainly the Sistine Chapel is a prime example, as is Fr. Robert Barron’s stunning Catholicism series. But can art that is not overtly religious be God-glorifying too?

I think I finally found my answer in Hurt. In the song and the accompanying video, Cash took a murky, invisible spiritual reality, and defined its edges and polished it up for us to behold. By taking such an honest look at the fleetingness of fame and worldly glory, he delved into the cauldron of the human experience and came out with a red-hot truth, even at great cost to his pride. And in the end he made for himself the most worthy legacy an artist could ever have: He created something that makes us more human.

+ + +

The video is below, but first watch this one-minute excerpt from one of Cash’s final interviews:

And do click the button on the bottom right to watch this one in full screen mode:


  1. Christine the Soccer Mom

    That video always makes me cry a bit. The look on June’s face while he sings about hurting everyone he loves is heartbreaking. I think you’re spot-on: this makes a powerful statement about how our worldly things are empires of dirt, even if it never falls into disrepair like the Johnny Cash Museum. In the end, it’s our love for God that will count.

  2. Elizabeth

    It’s straight out of Ecclesiastes: “Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas.” It is always so exciting when a member of the pop culture has the guts to tell that truth. I completely agree that art of this kind can point the way to God. Thanks so much, Jennifer.

    • Cindy

      The first time I saw this video, I, too, was drawn to the Preacher’s words about vanity. I’m also reminded of St. Thomas Aquinas’ vision on his deathbed that all of his great theological works were just so much “straw” to be burned in the light of his imminent encounter with the living Christ.

  3. nancyo

    Powerful video of a powerful song. The “vanitas” table setting emphasizes the fleeting nature of worldly existence, just as the abandoned museum. I can’t say the video is exactly an inspiration for me, but it is gorgeous: truth is beauty, indeed.

  4. Shannon

    Me, too — I think Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” is inspiring! Glad to know I’m not the only one since most people think this is a horribly depressing song. I am a runner, and when I was training for my 1st marathon, I had a very, very bad 1/2 marathon race which left me very discouraged. I stumbled on this Nike ad featuring Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and the song, along with the images of the athletes, snapped me right out of my disappointment — believe it or not, this depressing song (and seemingly depressing video) cheered me up. I think the song is a reminder that chasing after the wrong things will only cause hurt in the end. And the video shows that even the world’s greatest athletes will sometimes fail miserably – because they are human – and all we can do is try to pick ourselves up and keep going. Great post.

  5. John H

    Have loved this version and performance of the song for a while now. My wife never understands why I play it so often; but I think the reason is touched on in the post: dust you are, and to dust you will return is a good reminder, but because of who Cash is and how he performs it, there is a hopefulness of resurrection in the bridge and imagery in the video. The performance and video are a Baptism of a sort of the original NIN version, which reflected the characteristic nihilism and despair (and heroin addiction) of early ’90’s grunge, rather than the mature Christian hope that Cash’s version points to.

  6. Anne

    Great post, Jennifer.
    Great question about art. Makes me think of Anne Rice and her wish to see more beautiful, epic Christian-themed movies from Hollywood (before she left the Church again).
    Great shout out regarding Fr. Barron’s Catholicism. It is so wonderful. I want the soundtrack, too.

  7. Lucy

    I cry every time I watch this video. It became a totally different song than it originally was – it became… bigger, somehow. It probably helps to know some things about Cash’s past, the mistakes he made and the people he hurt, but also his love for the disenfranchised and his love for God. Have you ever seen Gospel Road? It’s Johnny Cash’s retelling of the life of Jesus. It’s low-budget and spare, mostly narrative. But it’s beautiful in its depiction of Jesus (ok, he’s a bit blonde, but it was the 70s).

    Your last paragraph is beautifully worded – and true!

  8. Kathryn

    I love Johnny Cash. He and I run together in the mornings 😉 Sometimes God finds us in the most unexpected places and this video is a great reminder of where our heart should be. Thanks, Jennifer!

  9. Christine

    I don’t know if you have seen “Walk the Line,” the movie based on Cash’s life. To me at least, it is a movie that communicates “sometimes it’s good for married people to have affairs.” Cash’s first wife is portrayed in an unflattering light, and he supposedly finds his true love in the woman he had an affair with (whom he later married). The only person in the whole movie who speaks out against divorce is an angry, bitter lady who corners a divorcee at the grocery store and treats her to mean-spirited comments. The whole thing was depressing.

    • Charity

      I also had a hard time with those elements of that movie. But at the same time, I found the film as a whole deeply affecting. As I reflected on it, and watched it again with the commentary on (not my usual way to spend time!) I felt that the second half of the movie would not make sense if the message was “sometimes it’s good for married people to have affairs”. It is a movie about redemption. You cannot have redemption if you have nothing to be redeemed from. It is only when you can see that his behavior with his first wife was despicable, that he should have been faithful and present to her, only when you know it is NOT good for married people to have affairs, that it means anything at all for him to change his ways. His turning point in the film was shown through his excruciating experience of going through withdrawal from drugs. The scenes are stretched tortuously almost to their snapping point not only to show the physical and mental strain of breaking an addiction, but because Cash needed to realize and feel all the hurt he had done to others before he could start fresh. His hard heart had to be broken before it could be filled with good. If he had done nothing wrong, and it was good for him to have an affair, then this would all be meaningless.

      I too felt a longing for a more explicit demonstration of the harms of divorce, but maybe if it were there, it would have made the movie too heavy handed for hollywood secularism. No awards committee member would have even bothered watching a movie that bashes divorce. Perhaps the critics applauded it so much because they received the message their hearts knew was right thanks to their brains never getting the chance to filter it.

      Thanks for highlighting this haunting video Jenn. I live in a cave.

    • JenMorgan

      That aspect of the film bothered me too but we have to remember the film was produced by June and Johnny’s son. So I’m sure he was in some ways trying to justify his parents relationship. Other than the above mentioned, I liked the film.

      Great post Jennifer!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      I’m so lame, I’ve only seen about five movies in the past eight years, so I hadn’t seen that one. Interesting note. That’s a shame that they had that take in the movie.

  10. Amanda

    Wow. I’d never watched that video. I’d heard part of the song. Very powerful. I think we all hurt so many people, sometimes without realizing it. It takes a lot to admit to all of that, especially in so public a way. I’m so thankful for confession. I think I better get there soon.

  11. Beth

    I love that song. “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush has the same effect on me. I think “hurt” is about regret. But what do I know. Sorry, but chicken soup for the souls does nothing for me. Does that make me a bad Christian? 🙂

    • Lisa

      One of my favorite songs of all time. I rarely hear it without shedding a tear.

  12. CC Jen

    I have loved that song and video since DH first showed them to me. What an amazing message!

  13. Kirsten

    Oh, I totally agree with you! Like so many, many things, you’ve articulated my thoughts so much clearer than I ever could. Thank you for that! I’m also really glad to know I’m not the only person who often finds inspiration in less-than-perfectly-holy means. I spent a lot of this past Lent listening to Cash’s “Unchained,” thinking similar thoughts:
    “Oh, I am weak. Oh, I know I am vain. Take this weight from me. Let my spirit be unchained.”

  14. Sarah Izhilzha

    Thank you for posting this. I work in Hollywood because of this truth… because truth can come through the most seemingly unlikely pieces of art, and strike us to the heart. I only wish more of the church (of all denominations, but particularly Protestant, in which I was raised) would figure this out. We miss out on a lot, and have stepped back from telling the truth about the human condition in much of the art that we produce.

  15. syd

    I listened to this song over and over again on the bus (Nine Inch Nails version) when I was in high school. It helped me as I was living with an extremely abusive stepfather and had no way out and felt helpless. I also listened to Korn (very explicit) in high school because they could scream for me when I couldn’t.

    I’ve noticed that as the seasons of my life have changed, so has my taste in music. Now that I’m grown up with my own children and have been baptized, I listen to hymns and country music (something I swore I would never listen to as a high schooler!). LOL.

    I will always love Johnny Cash though.

  16. Melissa

    If we are going to be talking about art that is truly Catholic, may I recommend the movie Dancer in the Dark , starring Bjork. It’s a movie that has haunted me for years, even though my husband really disliked it.

  17. Mamabearjd

    He is so raw in that video, it has always hurt me to watch it. I love that you wrote about it.

  18. Emily

    When I was in high school my youth group leader presented this movie at an outreach event, as part of the gospel-sharing time.

  19. Joe

    First, I love this song/video. But… the transience of human accomplishment (and human life itself) is one of the major themes of Western art and literature. (It’s likely one of the major themes of all art and literature globally, but I’m most familiar with Western art, so I’ll restrict my comment to that.) Shelley’s poem Ozymandias is probably the archetype (although the theme itself obviously long predates Shelley). I love that poem in the same way (and for a lot of the same reasons) that I love this song.

    So, I’m not really understanding how the song Hurt is “finally” providing you with an answer to the question “can art that is not overtly religious be God-glorifying too?” What’s the novel element in this song?

    Am I missing the point of this post?

  20. Stefanie

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve always loved the realness of this song and I love hearing about what makes people inspired!

  21. Theresa in Alberta

    John and June didnot need all the stage bling and stuff the so called performers use today….!!!!! I enjoyed the video.

  22. mary

    One of the original soul men…What a powerful song & what a legacy he left behind. I was just in Nashville & Sun Studios where he got his start is one of the best tours ever. It is all unchanged since it was built in the 50’s…the birth place of rock n roll. Man in Black song is a favorite of mine. He was a humble and God loving soul. Great post!

  23. Scott

    Being a Cash fan this post was particularly inspiring. Thanks for sharing and offering us a beautiful reflection of this mans legacy.

  24. Jacob Morgan

    Five years after the video was shot Cash’s Hendersonville (near Nashville) house burned down while being renovated by the new owner. Cash had built that house when he became famous, and part of the video had been shot inside the home. Seems fitting, somehow.

    The video was always powerful to me, it shows how easy it is to be focused on the wrong things. We all have, and are surrounded by, immortal souls that will live in in eternal glory or eternal horror (C.S. Lewis), but spend our time chasing after empires of dirt.

    • Cindy

      You might be interested in Roseanne Cash’s beautiful song “House by the Lake,” which is her reflection on the loss of her father (and June) as well as the role of memory in experiencing that loss. I think the song is on her album Black Cadillac. It references the Cash home in Hendersonville.


    I love Johnny Cash and I loved this post. I am really against forming Christian or even Catholic “ghettos”, especially when it comes to art. I don’t know where people get the idea that only christian art can lead you to God, when the whole world was created by Him and we’re all made in His image and have the same yearnings. Pope John Paul II talks about this in his Letter to Artists (#10 below) and Pope B16 has spoken about the same thing.

    “You know, however, that the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

  26. Charles

    This is really the entire theme of the original NIN album “The Downward Spiral” – it is basically a ‘concept’ album that tells the story of a character going through the entire progression of modern society from rejecting existing culture, God, and spirituality (“Mr. Self Destruct”, “Piggy”, “Heresy”, “March of the Pigs”), reveling in the material world trying to find meaning now that we’ve abandoned the old meaning (“Closer”, “Ruiner”, “The Becoming”), ultimately finding that hollow and destructive to oneself and ones culture (“I Do Not Want This”, “Big Man with a Gun”, “Eraser”, “Reptile”) and then at the end having the epiphany about the hollowness of worldly achievements and even the hollowness of devaluing human life (“The Downward Spiral”, “Hurt”).

    Now I would never claim that the album isn’t explicit, or that the author is necessarily reaching the same conclusions from his observations that you would, but that doesn’t discount the truth that it contains. If anything the entire record is a complete rejection of nihilism as a livestyle, but leaving open the question as to what the answer is. You can really here this in the chorus of ‘Heresy’ -he clearly is not saying “Your God is dead, and no one cares” in a snarky rejectionist way, he is almost astonished himself that no one seems to care that we’ve rejected God as a culture, he expresses his own anger towards God, and is upset that its not satisfying to him, and that the greater society doesn’t seem to react at all anyway. ‘Closer’ makes explicit references to physical pleasures and connectedness with other people clearly shows even a nihilist a touch of the divine “you get me close to God”, etc. Only to have the narrator completely pervert that and bring the base nature of physical pleasures and social interation to fruition at the expense of the good qualities in “Ruiner” and “Big Man With a Gun”.

  27. Magnificat

    The most unlikely of places?
    Well, when I first saw this video (10years ago, I believe) I cried like a river. What a powerful song!
    I’ve always undestood original version (NIN) as a suicidalthoughts of a young man.
    With Cash, this emerged as something completely different. Aging, loss, grief, atonement … human.

    Btw.did you notice that Cash has a “crown of thorns, but original version something else?

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Btw.did you notice that Cash has a “crown of thorns, but original version something else?

      I did notice that. I used to listen to the original about three times a day when I was a teenager. 🙂

  28. Smoochagator

    I love Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” And there have been quite a few secular songs, books, and movies that have touched me deeply and made me want to be a better Christian. That have helped me understand so much better what it MEANS to be a Christian. I remember many years ago reading an article about using secular media to help people understand God’s truth – the example the author gave was relating the movie The Matrix to spiritual warfare. It was a chilling analogy, and it helped me see secular culture in a completely different way. I have noticed that Catholics seem to have a better understanding of being in the world but not of it – finding God’s truth and beauty even in things that are not overtly religious – than Protestants and Puritans. For a long time when I was part of a very fundamentalist church group, I wasn’t “allowed” to consume any secular media – EVERYTHING that wasn’t explicitly Biblical was considered “demonic.” Now I feel that God is so big he can use anything in creation – anything that his creations create – to help us understand him, and to understand the reality of the spiritual world.

    As an aside, there have been plenty of movies that try to convince people that having an affair can be “good” for a marriage. A prime example is The Prince of Tides. A great movie and a great book, but that particular part of the story is disingenuous. The older I get to more annoyed I am with romantic depictions of truly stupid relational decisions.

    If you haven’t seen The End of the Affair, with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, (warning, it does contain some nudity and frank depictions of sexuality) I highly recommend it! It’s an incredibly good movie about the effects of adultery and the mystery of God’s work in our lives. The first time I saw it I was amazed that it managed to get made because it’s so out of the Hollywood norm in its treatment of religion. The book (also excellent) that it was based on was written by Graham Greene, who (according to Wikipedia) was a devout Catholic who struggled with the sin of adultery.

    • Smoochagator

      Oh, and as an aside: Cash was a devout Christian, so it’s not surprising that his version of this song impacts so many Christians in such a profound way. I think his life, with all its mistakes and turmoil, is an inspiring witness because he continued to repent and turn every time he fell into sin, even to the end of his life. The greatest mistake we can make is to think that our failings mean God is not real and grace is not true.

  29. J.Perrino

    Absolutely, I think you’re right that art can inspire relationship with Spirit and God without being overtly Christian. In fact, some of the best art (and books) that have moved me in a very spiritual way haven’t been Christian. Slapping a Christian title on things sometimes detracts: for one it ostracizes those who aren’t believers and is a bit of a cheat.

    I think the BEST of the best of art and writing should be by Christians because what we’re creating is made to glorify God. It should be apparent because of how great it is not because of the pigeonhole we put it in.

  30. Lucy

    Thank you for sharing this, I had never seen or heard the video/song. In addition, I don’t know the original song. I love hearing how it touched you and it is amazing how art can ‘speak’ to us. Once again,I am thankful you shared it with me and now I have experienced a transforming feeling too. Very much appreciated 🙂

  31. Stuart Buck

    Trent Reznor, who wrote the song, said this of Cash’s video:

    “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

  32. Elizabeth K.

    Absolutely–the best art is art that tells the truth about who we are, because it’s deeply, truly moral to do so. great post–I remember hearing and interview with Johnny Cash right after he recorded this album–very moving.

  33. Sarah B.


    This song has haunted me for a long time. The pain I take from Cash’s song is one primarily born of grief. In his case, from losing the love of his life, June Cash, who had died only a few months before he made the song. Some people leave a hole in us, and we are never the same. My mother died as a child, my father abandoned me shortly after, and I was raised by my grandparents. My grandmother who raised me is now in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and everytime I see her, she calls me Valerie (my mother’s name). I don’t have the heart to correct her. To me Cash is lamenting the loss of his person, the one who no one else can take the place of. SOmetimes the pain lets you know you’re still real. It’s relatable.
    Listening to the music of suffering gives me so much peace. The song “Latter Days” by Over the Rhine is one of my favorites. There’s beauty in songs of sorrow because it gives us a chance to connect, to say, “ah you too.” It’s a release.

  34. Lindy

    Yes, very powerful. I discovered the Cash version of this song a few years back and loved it first for the music, and then later for the lyrics/message. I had never seen the video–a perfect trifecta!

    I know what you’re saying; sometimes things like this–that remind us of our fleeting time spent on this earth and our own empires of dust–hurt so much they are beautiful. Of course, they’d be terribly depressing if we didn’t have the hope of Christ.

    Love your posts.

  35. Lindy

    And now, I just watched the interview and dang if my freshly applied mascara isn’t running down my face. Yes, inspiring. Very.

  36. Mark L

    I have always loved this. The honesty makes everyone feel vulnerable.

    Mark L.

  37. Becki

    Oh man. . .that song moves me. . . ..always. How must Trent Reznor feel?? Cash embodies that song and really makes it his own and in the process made it mine as well. Thank you for writing about it!

  38. Dan F.

    Thanks for posting this. Made me tear up a bit and reminded me of why I love the man in black so much. Really nice set up with your comments too.

    peace and grace,

    Dan F.

  39. yves

    This post is an eye opener. It has helped me a lot in my depression. Many times, when i listen to this song, it lifts me over and over. This is truly inspiring..

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