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Country fans have gotten to know new artist Devin Dawson thanks to his breezy debut hit, “All On Me,” but there’s a bit of a darker side to discover about Devin on his just-released debut project, appropriately titled “Dark Horse.”

For a clue on what we’re talking about, just take a spin through Devin’s Instagram account. You’ll see every photo is black and white, he’s always wearing black and he doesn’t crack a smile in any of the shots.

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The same goes for the stark video for “All On Me,” which was partially shot at the abandoned Tennessee State Penitentiary.

There’s even a song on the album titled “Prison” that uses the imagery of being in long-term lockup to describe a romantic relationship.

All of this starts to make sense once you find out Devin was raised in Orangevale, California, just three minutes from the most iconic prison in country music history, Folsom. Of course, Johnny Cash immortalized that correctional facility in his song “Folsom Prison Blues” and later won the CMA Album of Year Award for the 1968 live album he recorded there, “At Folsom Prison.”

“I didn’t realize what it was or what it meant to me until I moved away,” Devin tells Rare Country of the prison. “I wear all black, and I cannot hide from the fact that Johnny Cash has had even just a subconscious influence on my life from growing up there. Maybe not sonically, but just on my artistry and on my image. It took me kind of moving away to realize how lucky I was and how much that influence had seeped into who I am now.”

Devin spells out exactly who he is now on his album’s title track, “Dark Horse.” The lyrics are brutally honest, with Devin singing about siding with the outsiders and being slow to open up to love. The singer-songwriter also confesses in the lyrics, “My heart bleeds for country music / Where the honest outlaw truth is,” even though rock and soul influences pop up throughout his music.

He says of that standout line, from “Dark Horse,” “For me, my heart will always bleed for country music. That’s what I grew up on, and that’s why I write music. That line is so simple, but it just says it so emotionally.”

In the middle of the never-ending debate over what makes music country in 2018, Devin points to the honesty in his lyrics as the reason he’s staking his claim as an artist in the Nashville-based format.

“I’m allowed to do that here,” Devin says of writing from the heart. “Not like you can’t do it in pop or you can’t do it in urban, but it’s just accepted here. When I moved to Nashville, I found that there was a million other crazy people just like me. We all accept each other here, and we can all do what we were put here to do in this town.”

Devin is hardly alone in mixing things up, and he loves the diversity of sounds and styles currently playing on country radio stations.

Says Devin, “Country music is very broad these days, and it’s a beautiful thing to me when you can have Chris Stapleton next to Luke Bryan next to Thomas Rhett and it all fits. Country music is different to everybody. It’s the songwriting. It’s the truth, and it’s just the way you can express who you are wholeheartedly and unapologetically.”

Devin’s approach to country has already made him a favorite among his fellow artists, including hitmaker Cole Swindell.

Devin tells us, “I got a text from Cole Swindell the other day. He said, ‘Hey man, it’s Cole. I cannot stop listening to ‘Dark Horse.’ I’m a huge fan. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.’ When you get praise from your peers like that, that is one of the most incredible things. I’m really thankful for him just reaching out to say that. That’s just Nashville, man. We all come up together and we all raise each other up.”

Look for Devin to head out on tour with another pal, Brett Eldredge, starting in April. Go to DevinDawsonMusic.com for dates.

Hunter Kelly is a senior correspondent for Rare Country. Follow him on Twitter @Hunterkelly.
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