It’s an especially windy day on Nashville’s Music Row. The kind of wind that makes you worried you’ll go airborne. “You don’t mind if I eat do you?” Devin Dawson asks, plopping down in the chair opposite of me for our chat. It’s the beginning of what is one of the biggest weeks of his career thus far, but first, of course, lunch. He’s dressed in a black t-shirt and black ripped jeans, (a color that has gone to become signature for him) his as equally jet black hair giving off vague greaser vibes. He pops open his boxed lunch and offers me a sweet potato chip. “Want one?” He’s calm, cool, and collected. If you didn’t know his debut single had just been sent to country radio that day, he was shooting the official video for it Wednesday, making his national TV debut Thursday and making his Grand Ole Opry debut on Friday, you’d think it was just any other day for him.
Twenty-eight year old Devin Dawson is quickly emerging as one of the newest dynamic artists in country music; with a soulful, bluesy rock sound that is easily distinguishable, and sets him miles apart from the current batch of bro-country we’re served these days. Raised in Orangevale, California, he grew up right outside the gates of the famed Folsom Prison, the same prison that served as the recording site of what is possibly one of the greatest live albums of all time, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison. He would spend hours upon hours pouring over country, rock and R&B records, always finding himself obsessing over the intricacies and small things in songs that the average listener wouldn’t catch. These influences molded him into the self-proclaimed lyric guy he is today — always shooting straight for the emotion in his writing. “John Mayer has this quote that says, ‘It’s my failure to sound like my heroes that’s allowed me to sound like myself.’ And I think through, obviously, growing up listening to my heroes, taking that in, and then putting that all together into some kind of weird equation, and then putting it out again is what has allowed me to find my own sound and self,” Dawson says.
His first official foray into music started as all great music stories do — in a garage band with his friends playing bass. “We did it to get the girls… still am,” he jokes. Before they knew it, the group, which came to be known as Shadows of the Colossus, found itself moving from angsty high school kids just needing to get their feelings out, to a full on metal band. As the years went on following high school, he found himself growing out of the metal band phase and needed a change of pace from the constant touring the band did — something fresh, and something that would appease the gnawing need to write and create. Insert Nashville. The community of writers the city offers heavily attracted him, so in 2012 he picked up and moved cross-country starting over in the Music City as a student at Belmont University, and initially just looking to write for other musicians.
After a couple of years in Nashville, by late 2014, Dawson was beginning to see himself as a solo artist and even booked himself a gig for right at the beginning of the new year — and then Taylor Swift kicked things into high gear. A mashup cover of “Blank Space” and “Style” he did with friend Louisa Wendorff went viral, even capturing the attention of Swift herself, and has gone on to amass over 33 million views and counting on YouTube. It was the moment Dawson knew a solo career was the right move for him. And the popularity of the video didn’t hurt the turn out at his show a few weeks later, either.
I think through, obviously, growing up listening to my heroes, taking that in, and then putting that all together into some kind of weird equation, and then putting it out again is what has allowed me to find my own sound and self.
Since then, Dawson has used that momentum to propel his career, signing a songwriting and publishing contract with Warner/Chappell in 2015, and signed with Warner Music Nashville in 2016 as a solo artist. In February of this year he began rolling out his first batch of singles with “All On Me,” “Secondhand Hurt” and “I Don’t Care Who Sees,” and this spring opened for fellow rising country star, and recent Grammy Award winner, Marren Morris’ Hero Tour. He will also join Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s Soul 2 Soul Tour this summer for select dates. “All On Me,” a bouncy, instant summer jam, is the first being sent to country radio, and had already amassed over six million streams before it even hit the airwaves. “I’d like to think [“All On Me”] has a little bit of everything,” he said, commenting on it being the first single choice. “I remember when we wrote it, I don’t know if we realized what we had was so special. But when we finally demoed it I was like, ‘dang, this one is going to be the one to beat.’ And I think we all knew we wanted to come out of the gate with this one.” Although his sound may come across as fresh and new to listeners, he maintains that he isn’t necessarily trying to sound “different” on purpose. “I just go with what sounds right to me,” he says. “I just try to say things in a way that people have never heard before, find different angles, but still make it relatable.” He releases a small sigh, looks at me and simply says, “I just love music, man.” I move on to his then upcoming Grand Ole Opry debut, and although he said he doesn’t usually get nervous, he admitted he was nervous for that. “It’s a right of passage to be in that circle where legends have literally stood and sang. So to have that right of passage and to be accepted… I don’t know. I have no words. It’s a dream, a country music dream come true.”
For Dawson’s forthcoming debut record, on which he co-wrote every track, he teamed with Jay Joyce, who has also produced for the likes of country mega stars including Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and group Little Big Town, to create an album that truly showcases the diversity he offers, and one that will definitely be different from what permeates the charts these days. “It’s not a normal Nashville record, let me put it that way,” he laughs, fishing for another chip. “Going in there with Jay Joyce, he pulled things out of me that I didn’t know I had in me. It’s been a lot of trust, in him, trust in myself, trust in my songs, trust in my words. My record is a whole story. It’s not just a bunch of random things put together. Not necessarily a concept album, but every song has this common thread but they also don’t step on each other’s toes. You’re going to find all these influences that I grew up with. There’s straight country songs. There’s songs that are literally heavy rock. There are songs that are soulful and vulnerable, that tell my story. And then there are songs where I’m just the narrator telling someone else’s story. Kind of like this ghostly narrator. I like to think that it’s a little bit of everything I love about country music and just music in general.” Another element that makes his record unique is that instead of the customary studio musicians that most artists use when recording, Dawson instead laid down his entire album with his live band, all of which he’s been playing with for over five years since his days at Belmont. It’s a rarity for a studio record. “If you had told me a year ago that I was going to make a live record I probably would have laughed at you. You’re not using studio musicians that have two hours a day, we were in there for two months, twelve hours a day, just trying to find it. Going down roads we didn’t know we wanted to go down. It’s different, but it’s wholeheartedly me.”
Dawson is emerging at a time of major transition in country music. A time where listeners are desperately looking for something deeper, something authentic, less surface — and Dawson bridges these gaps and more. He ends up being a perfect conglomeration of all his past musical influences, using them to help stretch and expand the country genre with his own music like never before. He’s not so much breaking the rules as he is making his own. He finishes his sandwich, grabs one last chip and closes the box that formerly contained his lunch. He sits there for a moment, possibly pondering how much his life is about to change. “It’s a crazy time,” he eventually says. “But it just feels right, man.”