Prior to “Never Say Never,” Cole Swindell had never recorded a romantic duet in his career — but the fiery collaboration with Lainey Wilson is paying big dividends for the Bronwood, Ga. native.
Released in November, “Never Say Never” tells the tale of two lovers who are better off apart, but feel too alive together to keep their distance. This week, the song reaches No. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 15 on Country Airplay, marking Swindell’s 12th career entry on the latter chart — including six No. 1 hits.
The 38-year-old singer wrote “Never Say Never” with Jessi Alexander and Chase McGill in 2018, and he knew from the start it would be a duet. Swindell, a self-described “huge fan” of Wilson, texted the “Things a Man Oughta Know” singer to gauge her interest. “She happened to be on vacation somewhere and she was sipping on a piña colada,” he recalls. “That was the longest three-and-a-half minutes of my life, waiting on her to respond. She’s such a great songwriter herself, I knew she was going to be a tough critic. But immediately she texted me back. She’s like, ‘This is so huge. I’m in.’”
The song serves as the second single from Swindell’s Warner Music Nashville album, Stereotype, out April 8. The first, “Single Saturday Night,” hit No. 1 on Country Airplay last July. Below, Swindell tells Billboard about the process of creating “Never Say Never,” his new album, and why he feels it will elevate him to new heights.
Was the song inspired by real life?
I certainly have lived that — a relationship that maybe isn’t the best thing for you, but you can’t help who you love sometimes. I think a lot of people can relate to that. There’s that one person we just can’t quite get over. It’s not always the best thing for you, but we’re human. Anytime I can write a song about my struggles or my personal life that helps somebody else or makes them feel like, “Hey, I’m not the only one that feels like that” — I think that’s why we love country music, in general.
There can be complexities dealing with artists on different labels for duets. As you know, Lauren Alaina originally sang on Dustin Lynch’s “Thinking ‘Bout You,” but the radio version that went to No. 1 features MacKenzie Porter.
Speaking of Lauren, she was on that tour with me when I wrote “Never Say Never.” I remember thinking, “D–n, man, she would crush this song with me,” but at that time she’d already sang on several duets and then went on to have a No. 1 with HARDY [“One Beer”] and all that stuff. I understand labels not wanting their artists on every song out there, maybe, but I just think it’s more exposure.
You filmed the video at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, with the plot of the female guard helping the male prisoner escape. Did you think about you and Lainey playing the love interests instead of just performing the song?
Me and Lainey are obviously friends and in our own relationships, and I just didn’t think that would be the best thing. I usually like to do the lead role in my videos, but this was just one that, especially with another artist, I didn’t think we were going to be able to really make it what it should be. So we decided to just do the performances and let the actors do what they did.
Collaborations are really having a moment on the Country Airplay chart. Why do you think that is?
I honestly don’t understand why it took this long for it to be like this. In other genres, that’s been happening for years. I don’t think people understand what you have to go through to get another artist [from] a different label on a single. Even back when I did the song with Dierks Bentley (2017’s “Flatliner”), it was tough to get all our teams on the same page.
To me, in other genres when somebody asks you to be on their song, it’s a compliment. It doesn’t mean, “Well, he’s already sang on four other songs.” Who cares? If you’re popular and people want you on it, that’s just the way I kind of look at it. I think it’s opening doors to be able to work with other artists, and other genres, even. Having a different artist on there is just a bigger appeal to fans.
How do you hope “Never Say Never” and your new album, Stereotype, boost your career?
I think this song for me is the next chapter in my career, along with this album. It [has taken] over three and a half years to put out a new album by the time it comes out. It’s the first time I ever worked with Zach Crowell [as a producer] on this album and on the single, so [we’re] just excited to see what everybody thinks so far. The feedback has been amazing, and although [the album] took a little longer than I wanted, it was so important to get it right because I think this is it for me.
What do you mean when you say, “I think this is it for me?” That this album will take you to a new level?
I’m hoping so, and I think you hope that with every album. But I know you don’t get to put out albums forever, and you want all of them to be special. The pandemic obviously factored in just being able to record, and I feel like we had some great songs, but I think you’ve got to pay attention to your surroundings and the way music changes — whether that’s the sound, the type of songs or whatever it is. Whatever I had wasn’t hitting me. You had albums coming out that I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” And if I don’t feel like that about my own music, I’ve got to change something. We just kind of went back to the drawing board.
That resulted in your changing producers and writing more.
I kept writing a ton of songs. We also just kept recording until we felt like we had everything we needed. Switching producers was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career, just because I wouldn’t be here without Michael Carter. He’s done everything I’ve ever recorded. He did “Single Saturday Night” [on this album.] So that was a really tough thing and still is tough for me. But I also know that this is my shot at my career, and I don’t want to look back and say I didn’t try different things.
A version of this story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.