Things that take time often require patience, and “Blessings” took a lot of time to go from conception to terrestrial single. Patience was in order.
“We were in that place in our life of counting our blessings and being thankful and taking a second to let all the hard work soak in,” says FGL’s Tyler Hubbard. “It’s funny, because we wrote that three-and-a-half years ago, and it kind of rings more true now than ever.”
That word “rings” is part of the puzzle in “Blessings,” though it never actually appears in the song. FGL’s other half, Brian Kelley, and his wife, Brittney, were on vacation in the Virgin Islands in January 2016, feeling grateful for their marriage and for FGL’s commercial success. Kelley referenced both rings and blessings with two lines that became the start of the chorus — “I can’t count ’em on one hand/But, honey, look there on your finger” — during an informal writing session with songwriters Jordan M. Schmidt (“God’s Country,” “You Make It Easy”) and Ernest K. Smith, whose initial two tracks as an artist will be released under the stage name Ernest on Oct. 4.
As it turned out, Ernest had been exercising musical patience of his own, and it paid off in that tropical setting. During his high school years, he played around frequently with a folky, descending chord progression. On a trip to the local Guitar Center, another customer introduced him to an alternate opening tuning, DADGAD, and it made his chord pattern even better. He toyed with it often while writing songs, but never found the right puzzle pieces to match it.
“John Mayer is a big inspiration to me, so I was just playing guitar -- I wasn’t really even thinking of a country song,” says Ernest. “Then, when Brian brought that idea up, I was like, ‘Well, shit. This could be dope.’ ”
They wrote the chorus there in the Virgin Islands and mapped out the verse melodies around that descending guitar progression, fitting the vocal parts with the chords in a way that creates a series of tension-and-release moments as it unfolds.
“It’s always waiting on a resolve,” notes Ernest. “That is a cool thing about it, for sure.”
They would finish at another time.
“Tyler was in Africa with [his wife] Hayley at the same time we were in the islands,” recalls Kelley. “We were both in, like, life-changing places, probably doing a little bit of soul-searching, also doing a lot of looking back. We sent [the song] to Tyler and were like, ‘Yeah, when we get back, we gotta finish this.’ ”
Kelley also sent it to songwriter Tom Douglas (“The House That Built Me,” “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”), who didn’t know the duo all that well, but definitely appreciated the foundation of “Blessings.”
“I loved the message, but there was just something really powerful about the cool way that they were doing it melodically,” he says. “So I just started writing. Once I have an idea, I try to let it reveal what is going to be revealed, not trying to edit myself in the beginning. Some of it is just kind of stream of consciousness, and I bang out a few verses just for an approach.”
One of Douglas’ key early rhyme schemes -- “There’s music in your laughter from the floor up to the rafters/You’re that happy-ever-after I’ve been after my whole life” -- cemented the first verse, though patience was required of him, too, after he sent FGL some of his work.
“It went dark -- I know it was months, it may have been a year,” he says. “Occasionally I would reach back out and I would say, ‘Hey, what do you guys think?’ ”
Finally, the duo asked Douglas to visit Kelley’s “Treehouse” home and studio with Hubbard, Schmidt and Ernest, and they wrapped most of it there. “I remember Tom Douglas coming in with a notepad and already having, like, a whole page and just kind of scribbling notes and scratch written down,” says Hubbard. “It didn’t take us long to put all those pieces together and complete the puzzle.”
Other than a house, a ring and a Jeep, there are no man-made items referenced in “Blessings,” which focuses more on a marital relationship, simple beauties in nature and a spiritual element that ties the rest of it together. “The whole song really is [about] materia-lism versus spiritualism,” says Douglas. “It’s a very old theme of, you know, ‘count your blessings.’ And your blessings are the things that money can’t buy.”
Yet more patience was needed after that Treehouse appointment. Schmidt pulled together a demo, but FGL still wasn’t certain the song was done. The duo tapped songwriter Jesse Frasure (“Dirt on My Boots,” “Ring on Every Finger”) to do some extra work on the demo. He slowed down the tempo and changed a few pieces in the arrangement, helping find the track’s acoustic center.
“We wanted to keep it pretty simple and organic and raw,” says Hubbard.
Producer Joey Moi (Jake Owen, Morgan Wallen) followed Frasure’s demo fairly closely in a tracking session at Ocean Way studios, where the stained-glass windows fit nicely with the spiritual undercurrent of “Blessings.” Ilya Toshinsky captured the central acoustic guitar riff, Russ Pahl added tangy steel licks, Jerry Roe swirled brushes across the snare head to create a soft sonic filter and Dave Cohen chipped in with a Hammond B-3 organ, enhancing the elements of faith in the song’s text.
“The fact that Ocean Way is an old, converted church -- it does kind of tie it all together,” says Moi.
FGL always saw “Blessings” as a potential single, though the group’s previous release, “Talk You Out of It,” lingered longer on the charts than it had anticipated. Thus, a little more patience was required before “Blessings” finally went to radio via Play MPE on Sept. 10, though the wait allowed Big Machine Label Group to snap it into the calendar like a perfect puzzle piece. “When we get into the holiday-heavy part of the year, it feels like a good topic,” says Moi. “It just feels appropriate for the season and the mood that we go through over the next few months.”
Gratitude, says Douglas, is the antidote for the poisonous tone that dominates much of the national discussion. That’s why, Hubbard believes, “Blessings” matters at this moment in time.
“We really do hope that God can use this song,” he says, “and that people can be reminded of this amazing life we live.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.