After seven albums and two decades of struggling to make it as a country music artist, Thad Cockrell was ready to start 2021 by finding a new line of work.
Then Jimmy Fallon called.
Cockrell, 48, held back tears on TODAY Thursday as he described the moment his management team got a call for him to perform his song "Swingin'" on "The Tonight Show" Tuesday for the type of career break he figured was never going to happen.
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"I was really just trying to be open-handed and I wrote down on Jan. 3 of intentions and goals for the new year, things to do, and one of them was to look for a new career. And the next day I got a phone call from my managers, and they told me and I..." Cockrell said before getting choked up.
"It's absolutely incredible."
The Nashville-based singer-songwriter performed his hit song virtually with backing from the show's in-house band, The Roots.
"I'm such a massive fan of theirs," Cockrell said. "And they crushed it. And Questlove, it was almost like he was saying like, 'Hello, that beat's good on the record, but here, let me show you,' and I was like, 'Oh yeah, of course, that's how that's done.' It was such an incredible dream."
Cockrell released an album that he said "flatlined" during the pandemic at the same time that his tour was canceled as concert venues shuttered. That led him to the conclusion that maybe it was time to hang up his guitar.
"Maybe I've done my part here," he said in an Instagram video last week. "In 2021, I'm gonna start looking for something else."
That all changed when Fallon was in a local hardware store and heard "Swingin'" over the speakers. He used the app Shazam to determine the name of the song, and it soon became a favorite.
"So I'm like yeah, man, this is like, when you want to give up, don't give up," Fallon said on his show. "If you're gonna go down, you go down swingin', man. So I get into it, it's my anthem. I love this song."
Fallon wanted to bring the song to a national audience so the show contacted Cockrell's management.
"I proceed to bawl my eyes out for the next hour," Cockrell said in an Instagram video.
It came at a crossroads when Cockrell said he was considering starting a business making hot sauce after having made it for friends over the years.
"You can only spend all your money making music so many times, go broke making music. It's like, 'Well that one didn't work out, I'll do it again, that one didn't work out.' So I'm like, 'OK, I'm moving on,'" he said on TODAY.
Cockrell credited his family and friends for supporting him through all the hard years.
"You know, some people give you an exit ramp, but I think the best friends put fuel in the tank, and I have so many people that have done that for me," he said.
He took it as a sign that Fallon went into that hardware store looking for a light switch and ended up illuminating Cockrell's career.
"I am dumbfounded at what Jimmy did for me, and really not just for me, for all of us," Cockrell said in an Instagram video Wednesday. "There's getting to play 'Late Night' and then there's that. It's the morning after, and I really can't wrap my mind around it."
Cockrell can only wonder what comes next now that the song and album are doing so well.
"I don't know, you tell me," he said on TODAY. "I have no idea. I didn't see any of this coming. They said that the album was in the top 40 albums on iTunes. I mean it was flatlining. Not anymore. Just absolutely beautiful."
The song has become an anthem for Cockrell as much as any of his fans, with the chorus of, "If I'm gonna go down, I wanna go down swingin'!'"
He's now heard from so many people who have taken the song to heart, including a couple who started a business five years ago and were considering closing it down after being hit hard by the pandemic.
"They heard the story, they listened to the song, they simultaneously looked at each other and said, 'We're not closing,''' Cockrell said.
After his whirlwind week, Cockrell had a simple message for others considering calling it quits on their dreams.
"I just want to you let you know, don't give up," he said in his Instagram video. "Just keep going."