In the first months after his father’s shocking accidental death in 2013, Cole Swindell tried to channel his grief into writing a song.
“It was all right,” Swindell, 33, recalls, but “I knew that wasn’t how I wanted the song to be” – and so he gave up.
Then, in 2014, songwriting partner Ashley Gorley came to him with a title that Swindell knew immediately was “an answered prayer.”
On Thursday, the duo celebrated the extraordinary success of “You Should Be Here.” Since its February release, the single has resonated the pain of loss to millions, turning it into a platinum-selling No. 1. It also has gone on to become a career-defining song for a singer previously known for feel-good and love-gone-wrong music.
“It gives me chills thinking [Ashley] had the title exactly at the right time when I was ready, and I think that’s why we wrote it the way we did,” Swindell said before their No. 1 party at a downtown Nashville honkytonk.
As it turns out, Gorley – who has 27 No. 1 songs to his credit – was thinking about an entirely different kind of separation when he brought the title to Swindell. Gorley was on the road with the singer, who was opening for Luke Bryan, and the two were working on songs during Swindell’s down time. Before a stadium concert in Foxboro, Massachusetts, Gorley took a cell-phone panorama shot of the crowd and texted it to his daughter with the caption, “You should be here.”
“Obviously that’s what you look for as a songwriter – just a random phrase here and there – to get lucky,” Gorley recalled.
The moment Swindell heard the words, he thought of his dad. William Keith Swindell had died, just weeks after his youngest son inked his record deal, when a truck he was working on at his Glennville, Georgia, home fell and crushed him.
“Please,” Swindell begged Gorley, “let me write that with you.”
“That’s why I brought it up,” Gorley replied.
It quickly become apparent to the two that this was one of those songs that would almost write itself. “Some songs are hard work, and you try all these angles,” Gorley said. “That one we were just trying to catch in the air before it got away.”
“This is so special,” Swindell recalled thinking. “Just don’t mess it up.”
In fact, the only major decision they made was to keep the lyrics personal to Swindell’s loss. Somehow, though, the words have become universal to listeners’ ears. Now, when Swindell performs the song, he’s accustomed to looking out and seeing eyes brimming with tears and glowing cell phones raised in mournful solidarity.
“Songs like that are why I love what I do,” Swindell said. “It is about having fun, and I love what I do on stage, but … as powerful as ‘Ain’t Worth the Whiskey’ and some of the others are, there’s nothing like the bond you feel [during ‘You Should Be Here’]. You’re seeing someone in the third row with tears, and all I’m thinking about is, who are they missing? … It’s crazy to think that it’s that powerful. It’s helped me more than I think I’ve ever wanted to help anybody else, because I know I’m not alone.”
Now that he’s had “a taste of how really powerful music is,” Swindell added, “I think that’s what I’m here to do.”