That personal connection to Dillon makes "Break Up in the End" even sweeter for Swindell. When Warner Music Nashville senior vp A&R Cris Lacy sent it to Swindell, he had no idea who had written it, but it still struck him in a way that seemed like it was meant for his own individual story. As a result, it's perhaps the most emotional performance he has delivered to date.
"I feel like I'm living that song right now," he says. "I don't get into my personal life a whole lot, but when I heard it, I've been there, and it was just so powerful. I just wanted, when I sang it, to get lost in it."
"We've been friends for years," adds Dillon. "So when he sent it to me, the first time I heard it, it wasn't even mastered, and it made me cry because he just sold it so well."
Swindell writes most of his own music, so the idea of him recording "Break Up in the End" was not in the minds of Dillon and her co-writers, Jon Nite ("Strip It Down," "Boy") and Chase McGill ("When Someone Stops Loving You," "The Way I Talk"), when they penned it in McGill's office at Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville (UMPGN) in early 2017. But a scenario in which the listeners knew the conclusion in advance was on their minds. Dillon had run across a horror novel, David Wong's John Dies at the End, in a bookstore, and the premise had fascinated her.
"I will always remember Jon sitting across from me with his head down," she recalls. "I said, 'I saw this book title, John Dies at the End,' and he looked up and was like, 'We can't write that.' I was like, 'Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, I just like the thought that you completely just gave that away.' Like I already know the end of the story. I found the idea very intriguing."
So they explored final chapters other than death that might be worthy of that kind of treatment and settled on a fizzled relationship. McGill established the musical tone, which was kept in line by a simple mistake.
"I had forgotten my guitar that day, and my song plugger, Travis Gordon, had this cheap, old gut-string guitar," he says. "Those things are pretty much good for nothing but finger picking. We were pretty much limited to finger styles that day. I'm glad I forgot my guitar."
They decided the chorus would have a series of "even if" and "even though" statements that put the breakup in a current context, then started at the top, recounting all the now-bittersweet highlights of the broken relationship. It starts over drinks in a bar with a specific reference to a shuffleboard court, one of the distinctive features at Losers Bar & Grill, an indoor/outdoor Nashville club just two blocks away from UMPGN.
"For me personally, the relationship that I was in started at Losers," notes Dillon. "I think we wrote the song just a few days after I had met him. Sometimes you feel like you write your future."
The second verse had the guy in the plot letting his favorite song become their favorite song, setting up a unique internal rhyme: "Now all I hear is you in it, but I'd still let you ruin it/Even though we break up in the end."
By the conclusion, it's clear there's no animosity in the relationship's ending. The guy gets a call from his ex, who wants to come over, and he lets it happen, knowing he's in for more heartache: "We'll break up in the end."
It's a complicated set of emotions. Despite the heartbreak, he's happy to have experienced the relationship, much like the protagonist in classic songs like Garth Brooks' "The Dance," Clint Black's "A Better Man" and Trisha Yearwood's "I Would've Loved You Anyway."
"Those are some of my favorite songs," says Nite. "I idolize that era of music because it kind of formed me."
Intent on creating a spare demo for "Break Up," McGill recorded a piano/vocal version, then sent it via Dropbox to Nite to add his vocals. Nite wasn't very enamored with the keyboard, so he redid it with a sandy vocal, insistent foot tap and acoustic guitar.
"I'm not a great player of anything, but I'm a really good faker of everything on the instrument," says Nite. "I didn't necessarily think it needed all that much, so I basically played a folk, '70s-style guitar that my dad had growing up."
The writers thought it was good, but were more certain when their various publishers lit up over "Break Up in the End." Luke Bryan had it on hold for a bit, and Dan + Shay were in contention, so Swindell was touched by the opportunity to deliver it.
"I came up through this town writing songs, and I know what it means to give a song away like that," he says. "For them to share that kind of personal story with me and trust me with it to sing, that's pretty powerful."
Billy Panda translated the acoustic guitar part when Swindell recorded it at the Sound Emporium toward the end of 2017. Drummer Greg Morrow used a muted kick drum in place of the foot tap with small cymbal and snare flourishes, and producer Michael Carter added block piano chords to fill out the sound. Swindell imbued his vocals with a fragile sensitivity.
Warner Music Nashville released "Break Up in the End" to country radio via PlayMPE on Feb. 23, and Swindell sang it live for the first time that same day in Madison, Wis. It's at No. 32 in its fifth week on Country Airplay. Should it become his fifth single to top that chart, the No. 1 party should be around the shuffleboard court at Losers, though -- in contrast to the lyrics -- the ending to the single's story is still unknown.
"I don't want to jinx anything," says McGill. "I won't be thinking about the party yet."
In the meantime, Swindell's deep personal connection to the song -- his friendship with Dillon and his familiarity with the topic -- sets the stage for the audience to connect to that same emotion. And, thus, to him.
"I hate having to live through some of these things," he says. "But I think that's why I was put here, so I could let people relate to real-life stuff. That's what this song is."