It’s amazing how fast two minutes and 55 seconds can go.
That’s the amount of time it takes Jordan Davis to follow the life of a relationship — from confirmed bachelor, to husband, to father, to grandfather — in “Next Thing You Know,” a moderately unconventional ballad that practically has awards-circuit contender stamped on it. MCA Nashville released it to country radio via PlayMPE on Feb. 6 based on the reaction from fans, who frequently confess in YouTube comments that the song makes them cry. That response is not much different from the reaction of the four men who created it.
“I’m not the only one that probably had a few tears in the writing room,” Davis says. “That usually means you’re writing something real.”
“Next Thing” was basically a last-minute bonus as Davis worked on his Bluebird Days album, released Feb. 17. Greylan James (“Happy Does,” “For What It’s Worth”), Chase McGill (“5 Foot 9,” “Never Say Never”) and Josh Osborne (“What He Didn’t Do,” “Body Like a Back Road”) had a co-writing session booked at Universal Music Publishing Nashville for June 14, 2022, and Davis was added to the appointment just a couple of days before it took place. He had a June 21 recording session on his schedule, and the implication put pressure on the group to come up with something great.
“If we do it, we get a cut,” recalls James. “If we don’t, we’ve missed an easy opportunity.”
McGill had the title, “Next Thing You Know,” when they gathered in a basement writing room, and he saw it originally as a device for a tale about a couple who meets in a bar — the guy swears he’s staying single; next thing you know, he’s not. Davis liked the idea but wanted to shoot for something bigger: not just the first exchange of glances, but the whole sweep of a lifetime romance.
Everyone agreed, though they knew it was an ambitious concept. They briefly took time to lay out the chapters up front, making sure they had a sense of the journey.
“On a song like this, it felt like we needed to have a little bit of a road map before we got too far into it,” McGill says. “Fairly quickly into writing a life song, you think, ‘OK, if we spend 47 seconds of the song being 21, then we’re not going to get a lot of life in there.’ So kind of delicately, you have to think about how we get [in] the really important parts and yet move time along.”
The “Next Thing You Know” title became a significant part of the story. Each verse used the phrase twice to set up a change in perspective or life circumstances, allowing them to speed through some moments and linger on others. And one of them suggested that if they really wanted to pack a lot of life into the piece, they should make the lyrics in every chorus different and cover more events.
“That’s usually the kiss of death, if we change stuff,” says James. “We’re like, ‘Are we?’ We’re all looking around the room, just waiting for somebody to go there, and Jordan’s like, ‘I’ll do three different choruses. I don’t care. Let’s do it.’ ”
McGill and James played interlocking guitar parts, creating a “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” musical vibe, and they headed down the road with the couple marrying in the first chorus, leaning on Davis’ own experiences to tell the narrative. “The best man giving the half-drunk speech — that was me,” he admits. “I probably had a few too many cocktails before I gave my best-man speech for my brother.”
The second-chorus scene in the hospital nursery, the singer dressed in scrubs and talking with the doctor, provoked some of the tears in the room. “I do specifically remember our doctor,” says McGill. “I might have looked a little faint or something, and I just remember him going, ‘How you doing there, Dad?’ It hit me right then: ‘Holy crap, this is real, man. I’m fixing to be a dad.’ ”
The protagonist’s kid heads off to college at the end of that stanza — “It’s amazing how fast 17 years go” — and next thing you know, the couple is back to two again, experiencing life as grandparents, with the story falling off before it reaches an obvious conclusion. “We didn’t kill anybody in the song, which we’re very proud of when we’re talking about life,” James says.
All four writers sang along to a guitar-only work tape with plans to do something more elaborate, but Davis didn’t have time to do another vocal for it over the next week — and didn’t need to. The group’s performance was highly emotional, and it sold the song perfectly. “The second I turned it in to my team, everybody was kind of like, ‘We need to get this out,’ ” recalls Davis.
Producer Paul DiGiovanni recognized that the words needed to carry the song, and was careful to keep the studio band restrained even as it moved the sonic narrative forward.
“It was all about the biggest moment being that last chorus, but we still didn’t want the song to be too huge,” he notes. “How do we get from zero to, say, 40, and slowly accelerate in between there? That was the whole key. We didn’t want to go zero to 60, we didn’t want to go zero to 100. We really wanted to just have a smooth runway to get us up to that last biggest chorus but still not be overbearing, not to get in the way of that vocal.”
Ilya Toshinskiy played the acoustic guitar part twice — once for the left channel and again for the right to create a depth of sound without using too many notes. Drummer Nir Z also loosened the screws on the snare, playing with his bare hands to develop a bongo sound. Other percussive elements, like shaker, tambourine and a programmed sound that approximates the African talking drum, subtly fill in gaps without covering the vocal. Guitarist Derek Wells topped it off with a mysterious, atmospheric solo that underscores the inspirational weight of the story.
“It’s very dreamy; there’s a lot of delay and reverb,” says DiGiovanni. “It’s not like a ‘Here comes the guitar player to the front of the stage’ moment. It just adds a little bit of a mood to the track.”
“Tucson Too Late” was originally slotted as the second Bluebird Days single, but listeners were already streaming the fire out of “Next Thing.” When Davis saw the audience’s overwhelming reaction to it on the first few dates of his new tour, the label called an audible. It commands No. 19 on the Hot Country Songs chart dated March 11 after 25 weeks on the list and rises to No. 42 in its third week on Country Airplay. Davis is learning to let it elicit tears in his live shows without breaking down himself.
“You just kind of have to remember there’s probably somebody here that came tonight to hear this song, so get it together and present it well,” he says. “That’s what I tell myself every night. I see how special this song is.”