It was in January 2018 that Devin released his debut album Dark Horse. It included songs written with the likes of Luke Laird, the Warren Brothers, Barry Dean, Laura Veltz and David Hodges. His brother Jacob worked on two of them including the smash radio hit All On Me, which brought John Mayer onto country radio. Unfortunately the follow-up single, the similarly soft Asking for a Friend, tanked at radio. They ought to have gone for Dip, a song about getting rowdy after an open mic night, or Second To Last. Ultimately the album was a bit too ‘open mic’, in that there were smart songs performed with pathos that didn’t necessarily grab the radio programmer’s attention.
It was produced by Jay Joyce, which makes Devin a member of the Joyce crew alongside Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark and Brothers Osborne. All of these acts are on the rockier end of country’s spectrum and this showed with Devin’s work. After all, he was formerly as a bassist in a death metal band called (wait for it) Shadow of the Colossus. He has since toured with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, so he may have picked up some tips on how to break into the mainstream. He also wrote God’s Country for Blake Shelton, one of the best songs of the last few years.
As is the way of a record label, rather than a full album we have an Extended Play called The Pink Slip. Three of the tracks are instant, for me at least, with the other three needing a bit more work to enjoy. As with Sam Hunt and Keith Urban, only some of it is obviously country but a Nashville songwriter is surrounded by music, be it hillbilly or black.
The three songs which hadn’t been previewed in the EP’s rollout are a mixed bag. Who’s Gonna Hold Ya moves well away from country in its production, with an off-beat rhythm driving a quick song about romance. Whatever Forever Is announces itself with a digital loop and some chords on a piano, on top of which Devin talks of love and stuff. I would prefer it in an acoustic version as there’s a lovely song underneath all the digital effects. Dan + Shay, however, do this thing better and just as melodically.
I will be replaying Not on my Watch throughout the next week. It’s perky, with some skittering drums and some digital banjo. Production rules here but there’s plenty of melody on a song about ‘coming back a little stronger’. It’s invigorating and percussive ‘Nashville pop’ music with plenty of personality. There’s also a guitar solo too. It sounds like a Devin Dawson song, ultimately, which is the best compliment one can give.
We have had a few weeks to digest a third of the EP. I Got a Truck is a credo, as Devin lists all the things he got, over the top of a rootsy shuffle. It’s a grower with a very good middle eight and an extended solo in the last minute which lifts the song beyond the banal and into Keith Urban territory. It helps that it’s in the same key as Keith’s ubersmash Somebody Like You.
Range Rover is a wry pop song about an ex who was too hands-on. Lee Greenwood and Keith Whitley both have cameos, but this is a groove-based song featuring one of the riffs of last year. I must have played it ten times in a row after I first heard it.
Released on Thursday January 7, He Loved Her is driven by some smooth guitar and is sung with a vocal somewhere between Brad Paisley and John Mayer. It’s a song about a ‘small town simple man’ who ‘had a dog’ and ‘drank a beer’, the type that Devin wants to emulate. Because the video stars Devin’s grandparents, it seems like the way he wants to be remembered is just like the way his grandpa will be. I like the line in the second verse about the ‘half-price stones’ that should not be erected. Dirt, shirts, prayers and football also feature, so it’s a little checklisty but it does its job and Tim McGraw could have had a smash with this. It’s definitely country.
More will follow as Devin pushes his new project but, as with Dark Horse, I am on board.