Thad Cockrell thought it was time to throw in the towel.
After 20 years in the music industry and seeing his most recent album, 2020's If in Case You Feel the Same, "flatline" following its release, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter, 48, had yet to have his big break. So on Jan. 3, he made a list of his goals for 2021, including "find a new career."
"When you're making art on a commercial level, it's a conversation and enough people have to sign up for the conversation in order to make it viable," Cockrell tells PEOPLE. "It just wasn't viable, you know? I have my master's in family therapy, and I also have been making hot sauce. So. I thought, 'Maybe that's what I'll do.' I was just really putting it out there."
The next day, Cockrell sent his list of goals to his management. Two hours later, they called him with news that would change his life.
"They were like, 'Hey, we're not talking about the list that you sent — Jimmy Fallon has fallen in love with your song 'Swingin"' and it's like his anthem and he wants you to come play The Tonight Show," he says. "I can't tell you how speechless I was."
Fallon, 46, discovered Cockrell's "Swingin'" — a track from If in Case You Feel the Same — during a chance trip to a local hardware store, Wainscott Hardware in Wainscott, New York, weeks ago. Still shooting The Tonight Show from his home at the time, he needed to get a light switch for an old lamp that had shorted and was going to be shown in the background of a shot.
"A lot of people find it hard to believe that I went to the hardware store to get a light switch and then installed it myself, but I promise you I did," says Fallon, who even provided video proof of the installation on his Instagram story Thursday. "As I was doing it, I knew no one would believe me. I must have learned it in like basic electricity in high school."
"Anyway, I go to this hardware store, and I'm the only person in there besides the kid working," he continues. "I'm in some aisle looking for light switches, and I hear this song, like, 'If I'm gonna go down, I wanna go down swinging.' I go, 'I love this! Who is this? I've never heard this song.'"
Thinking the song might be something by George Harrison or ELO, Fallon pulled out his phone and Shazam-ed it.
"It said it was by Thad Cockrell," he says. "I actually thought it was Tad and that maybe he was British. And so, I go, 'Tad Cockrell. Alright, cool.' I just kept listening to the song, and I didn't move. It embodied my spirit at the time. It's such a fist-pumping kind of song and a good air guitar, rock-out song. Something to crank in your car."
"Swingin'" stuck with Fallon and soon became his weekend anthem. So he decided to text his music producer and talent booker for The Tonight Show, Julie Gurovitsch, about getting Cockrell on as a musical guest.
Though Gurovitsch hadn't heard of him either, she took a chance and booked him. On Tuesday, Cockrell made his Tonight Show debut performing "Swingin'" with The Roots.
"The Roots absolutely crushed it," Cockrell says. "I am such a fan of those guys. The beat that Questlove put down, I was like, 'I think that's better than the version that we got on the record.'"
A longtime sports fan and former wrestler, Cockrell says he got the inspiration for "Swingin'" while thinking about the infamous 1990 boxing match between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas.
"It's the biggest upset in boxing history," he says. "Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson at Mike Tyson's prime. But what nobody talks about is Mike Tyson knocked down Buster Douglas first. Buster Douglas at some point had to think, 'Okay, I'm going to get up, and I'm going to keep swinging.' That's what the song's about. It's a song that says, 'What if you don't take defeat?'"
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After the Tonight Show performance, "Swingin'" found its way to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes chart, where it currently sits.
"The song was No. 3 on iTunes first, and I went, 'Oh my God, what?'" Fallon says. "I freaked out. I'm like, 'Thad, your song is No. 3 on iTunes!' Two seconds after I sent that out, it went to No. 1. I almost started crying. This is the coolest thing. Everyone is so elated here at the show. Everyone's dancing around like, 'Wow. This is so awesome.'"
"I did not plan on it to go to No. 1 or anything like that," he adds. "That was beyond anything I thought. I just was interested. I thought it was a great song, and that's all I knew."
While Fallon has seen the careers of artists like Cardi B, Dua Lipa and Bad Bunny blow up after making their national and/or late night debuts on The Tonight Show, nothing has happened quite like this.
"We've had new artists on the show before and launched people, and there's nothing better than when you have a new comedian, a new band or a new actor — someone who's never done talk shows before — on," he says. "You go, 'We took a chance because someone else took a chance.' [But I've never seen anything] shoot up to No. 1 like this. This is a feel-good story, and it's a time when people want to hear stuff like this. This is the fastest rise I've seen."
Stories like this, Fallon says, makes what he does all worth it.
"I'm very lucky to be in the position I am, I know that," he says. "These are the moments where you really get a good little reality check, and you go, 'You're doing a good thing.'"
"It goes to show, never give up," he continues. "Don't stop following your dreams because you never know when some person will be in a hardware store and hear your thing or whatever. I hope that this trends with, I don't know, DJs, or anyone else who has a platform, where they go, 'Hey, you know what? That guy that played the bar down the street, I thought he was always great. I'm just going to play it on the air.'"
Deemed the "king of the uncynical" by Cockrell on Wednesday, Fallon can't help but agree with that descriptor.
"I just like things," he says. "I'm fan of stuff, and I love pop culture, and I love music. I love books. I love art. I love TV shows. I love movies. I know how much work goes into all of those things. So when I have people on my show, I like to shine a light on the work and how much goes into it. And so, I actually am a fan of things, and I'm not ashamed to say it."
To celebrate Cockrell's success, Fallon jokes there should be "a live, socially distanced concert outside hardware stores all weekend, all around the country."
Plus, Fallon says he "cannot wait" to have Cockrell back on the show whenever it's safe to do so in-person.
"I can't wait to see what he does next," he says, adding, "He should write a song about me! I don't want an album. I don't need a box set. I'm not asking for much. Just one song, that's all. I'll take a dedication."
To that, Cockrell says, "I am so writing a song about him. He might think it's a joke, but I'm going to write a banger!"
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