by Jessica Nicholson
On Jan. 4, singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell got a phone call every musician dreams of—his management rang with the news that he would be performing on one of the biggest late-night TV shows, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
That call was a crucial turning point for Cockrell, who has spent two decades steadily building his career through five album releases and relentless touring, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced artists, including Cockrell, off the road.
Mere hours before that phone call, Cockrell had emailed his managers, letting them know he intended to end his music career and instructing them to go ahead and release music he had already stored up.
“It’s really hard to wrap my mind around it. From that moment until right now, it’s crazy. They say your life can change in a day, and it’s like, ‘Oh yes, it can.’” Cockrell tells CMT.
Fallon heard Cockrell’s song “Swingin’” playing over the loudspeakers while visiting a hardware store, and the show host fell in love with the song’s blazing intensity and rise-above-it-all message. Fallon used Shazam to track down the singer behind the track, and by Jan. 26, Cockrell was performing the song on Fallon’s show as a Zoom guest, performing alongside Fallon’s house band The Roots. The next day, “Swingin’” skyrocketed to No. 1 on the iTunes charts.
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Cockrell spoke with CMT about performing for Fallon, working on his latest album, and what lies ahead.
The same day you decided to hang it up on your music career, you got the news that you are performing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. What was it like leading up to getting that call?
With the pandemic and no touring, I was thinking, “Maybe this is my time to really do something else.” On Jan. 3, I wrote my goals and intentions for the year and that included looking at transitioning to a new career. I emailed my managers and said, “I’ve been making a lot of music over the course of the lockdown. Here’s what I need you guys to do: we are going to release all the music I made.” I also have a band called Leagues, and I had an unreleased Leagues album, so we were going to release that. And, I didn’t tell them this, but I talked to friends like, “What is something else you think I would be good at?” I emailed my managers that morning, and they called me a few hours later and said, “We don’t want to talk about the list. Jimmy Fallon heard your song and has fallen in love with it. It has become his anthem. You are going to be playing on his show.”
I just sat there quietly for a couple of minutes. They thought I had hung up! I was like, “Are y’all messing with me?” It just wasn’t computing. I got off the phone and bawled my eyes out for an hour. Then I FaceTimed like 10 of my best friends that have been on this crazy journey with me and told them the news. I have a screenshot of their faces when I told them the news.
What was it like performing on the show?
The producers did such a great job and they were like, “Let’s turn this into like an ‘80s music video.” Which was fantastic because that place is on lockdown. Their security is crazy. The band had been rehearsing that song and the whole thing was incredible.
Meeting Jimmy was really cool. I met him the day before the performance. He said, “I’m so excited that you are doing this. My wife and I love your music and story and this song is helping so many people.”
You wrote “Swingin’” with Z Berg, and it is from your 2020 album If In Case You Feel The Same. What inspired it?
It’s the only song I co-wrote on the album. It was the first time we had ever met and hung out. It’s just about people believing in you enough to give you the ball for the last shot.
I think about one of the biggest boxing upsets of all time, Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas [at the Tokyo Dome in 1990, where heavyweight champion Tyson lost by a knockout to underdog Douglas]. Tyson was a boxing god and unbeatable. Douglas was a huge underdog and he ended up beating Tyson, but what nobody talks about is that Mike Tyson knocked Buster out first. So you have to think, “What was going on in Buster’s mind?” I think he had just lost his mom within that last month and he was sitting there, and had been knocked out. Something inside of him has to be saying, “I think I can beat this guy.” And he got up, and he did.
What kind of stories have you heard from people who have related to this song?
There have been so many. An entrepreneur and his wife started a business five years ago and they were about to close down due to COVID. I got this message and they said, “We’ve been working on this business and we heard Jimmy’s story and heard your song. We said, ‘We’re not closing.’” I think that’s why this song needed to come out now. That’s what makes music so incredible. It gives us a rallying cry and something to connect to.
Artists’ livelihoods have been shuttered due to COVID. How have you been getting by?
Everyone in music, the guitar techs, the musicians, they all have families to support and nobody has any jobs. We don’t know when it will open back up. I’ve been doing a few things. I have a Masters [degree] in Family Therapy, and I’ve been making hot sauce for about 10 years and I was actually selling it over the lockdown.
There are a lot of different influences on If In Case You Feel The Same.
This album is like a mixtape. My first three or four albums were old-school country albums. I’m a massive Chris Stapleton fan but I also love Little Big Town, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. I started off making those kinds of records but I love everything. I just let my creative instincts run free and this album is a mix of all the music I grew up listening to. Hardcore country fans love other stuff, like R&B and hip-hop. Rarely does anyone listen to only one type of music. So you hear lots of things in this album. Slow and Steady feels like if Bob Segar or Bruce Springsteen did a country song.
What is next for you?
What is next is just trying to get this album we made out to as many people as possible. I’m grateful to have a team that can make that happen. In the meantime, since I can’t go out and tour, I’m making my next album in Nashville. But the song is doing well at radio and I think there are other songs on If In Case You Feel The Same that will really connect well with people.