Music

Writers Behind Darius Rucker’s & Jennifer Nettles’ ‘Never Been Over’ Talk Bringing Multiple Meanings to a Slow Descent

The new Darius Rucker single “Never Been Over,” featuring a convincing appearance by Jennifer Nettles, is easily heard as a celebration of a long-term relationship. The chorus employs a series of separation images – splitting up the household items, burning old letters or waving goodbye – that often appear in songs about a breakup, but it notes in the process that the couple has no experience with that stuff: “We’ve never been over.”

It’s also possible, knowing Rucker’s history, to focus on the song’s road images and see it as a nod to his ongoing membership in the sometimes-active/sometimes-not Hootie + the Blowfish.

Those interpretations are legit in Rucker’s mind, though it’s not how the song ended up playing for him. “When I started it, I think it was a love song,” he remembers. “But then as we kept writing it, I just realized that wasn’t a love song for me. It was more of a breakup song, and it was so therapeutic.”

People needed therapy at the time. It was May 21, 2020 – barely two months into the pandemic, days after the U.S. death toll passed 90,000. Songwriters were just getting used to composing via Zoom, and Rucker had a session that day with Brothers Osborne guitarist John Osborne and songwriter Lee Thomas Miller (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “You’re Gonna Miss This”). The process was clunky – if they sang, talked or played guitar, it muted the other participants and made it difficult to coordinate well.

Fortunately, Miller showed up with the “Never Been Over” title, and then some. “He walks into a room with a title that he knows can easily be written,” Osborne says of Miller. “He’s just really good at coming up with things like that, and he just said the title and threw out some concepts around the idea.”

“I had the trick, ‘We’ve been a lot of things, but we’ve never been over,’” Miller reflects. “It’s my favorite kind of song. It’s just the laundry list to make a point, you know, and so it was, ‘Okay, how do we do these contrasts?’: ‘We’ve been apples, we’ve been oranges,’ you know, ‘hot and cold’ and all the stuff.”

Osborne eased into a descending chord progression – not just a short one, but one that takes a long, leisurely journey.

“It starts up high, and it just walks down and keeps walking down and keeps walking, keeps going down,” Rucker says. “You rarely hear a song like this, that’s just descending the whole time. And then you get to the second verse, and it goes back and descends again.”

“I can’t remember who called it this, but it’s been dubbed the Bluebird walk-down,” Osborne says. “If you go to The Bluebird [Café Songwriters in the] Round, you’re going to hear somebody play those chords … And it feels emotional and evokes a feeling. And at the end of the day, that’s all we’re trying to do, is just evoke emotion.”

Miller’s initial structure included the song’s first two contrasts, “good and bad, hot and cold,” simple pairings that clued the listener in before they grew increasingly complex: “Desert quiet and rockstar loud,” “up and down like we’re built on springs.” By verse two, the images include “two pink lines, up all night” at the open and “18 years around the sun” at the end.

“We got pregnant, and we sent them to college in four lines,” Miller says.

Since the Zoom setup prevented them from doing a collective work tape, Osborne did a vocal/guitar recording on his own and sent it to Rucker. Barely 50 days later, Rucker and Beth Leonard announced their separation. Miller figured it was a bad omen for the song. “I thought we just lost our shot,” he says. “I felt like, ‘Wow, maybe this [will be] pushed on the back burner for personal reasons.’ I didn’t know, I didn’t ask.”

But he also didn’t realize that Rucker was viewing it as a breakup song, rather than a love ballad. “It was the first song I wrote about [the divorce],” he says. “There was no way I wasn’t gonna cut it. It was such a great song.”

When Rucker eventually recorded it, he made an acoustic version at the Blackbird Studios with producer Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Gabby Barrett) and just three or four musicians. Ilya Toshinskiy turned the signature riff that Osborne had originated on acoustic guitar into a mandolin hook. “It just cuts better as a mandolin,” Copperman says. “It feels more signature, and it kind of fits his ‘Wagon Wheel’ vibe, that rootsy thing. It really fits him.”

Rucker needed no more than three takes to nail the final vocal, which sounds almost as if it were being delivered in a quiet moment in front of a fireplace.

“John Osborne sang the demo,” Rucker says. “I toured with John. John’s a real good friend. I didn’t know John could sing like that, because John’s a guitar player, you know. He sings background, and you can’t really hear because T.J. is so great and so loud. John sang the demo, and I still listen to his demo, and every time I sing, that’s all I’m trying to do, is sound like John does on the demo, because it’s so great.”

During the first round of sessions, they discussed turning “Never Been Over” into a duet – “There was initial talk of Kacey Musgraves doing it,” Copperman remembers – though it remained a solo cut on the Carolyn’s Boy album, released by Capitol Nashville on Oct. 6, 2023. Despite his reticence to pick singles, Rucker lobbied for “Never Been Over,” and the label consented, even before management suggested they reach out to Nettles. After they added bass, drums and electric guitar, she overdubbed her part on her own — though Rucker’s team gave some loose suggestions, particularly asking for her to enter with the “two pink lines” phrase.

“Adding Jennifer Nettles’ second verse kind of elevates the thing to a whole new level,” Copperman notes. “Hearing the female side of the story here – like, I always wanted this song to be a duet, man. I was so happy when we finally found out it was gonna be Jennifer.”

Capitol released it to country radio on May 6, and while it can be viewed as a love song, a breakup song or even a Hootie song, it also works as a statement about his ongoing relationship with his ex-wife. Even after they split, they’ve never been over.

“We love our kids very much, and we’re gonna be in each other’s lives the rest of our lives,” he says. “I hope we’re both being adults. I think after you get through all the stuff you have to get through, you can be friends. You have to.”

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