Latin Grammys 2018

What's Behind the Mystery In Devin Dawson's Sophomore Single? Just 'Asking'

Jimmy Fontaine
Devin Dawson

As the listener reaches the end of Devin Dawson's sophomore single, "Asking for a Friend," he or she is left in limbo. Has the singer approached this woman in the bar on his own behalf, is he acting as an emissary for a buddy, or is he simply saying he needs a friend?

Any one of those interpretations works, and the song's mild mystery is designed to draw you in.

"It's a song where you could just enjoy the melodies and the groove and the feel, and then slowly dig into each verse, and then slowly dig into the story," says Dawson. "It kind of brings you back for more without being too complex."

The mystery is thinly veiled: The song's three writers -- Dawson, Connie Harrington ("I Drive Your Truck," "I Got the Boy") and Brett Beavers ("What Was I Thinkin'," "Red Solo Cup") -- address it as if the singer is trying to disguise himself by talking in third person. He practically telegraphs his evasiveness as he makes a quasi-confession to the woman from that other-person point of view: "He ain't never been any good at laying it all out on the line."

"There's only one line at the very end where he says, 'Do you think you can love him again?' -- and he's still not talking about himself," says Dawson. "He is, but his pride is up, and isn't that just like every guy: to not want to apologize or to not know how to just say, 'I'm sorry. I was wrong.' "

Maybe, in fact, that guy is Devin Dawson. When they wrote "Asking for a Friend" on March 7, 2016, Dawson showed up at Beavers' writing studio in Nashville's Berry Hill neighborhood around 10:30 a.m. with a heavy heart.

"It was one of those songs that was definitely rooted in my story," he says. "I was going through a relationship where I probably could have used this song, you know, and I needed to say 'sorry' to someone. I think we had already ended things a couple weeks earlier."

Dawson addressed the emotions of his predicament in the writing room, but like the guy in the song, he held back, revealing his sensitivities without admitting just how close to home "Asking for a Friend" hit.

"I sensed that there was some real-life situations that he was drawing this idea from," says Harrington. "And I remember after we finished, he texted me a few days later that the song just broke his heart. So I thought, 'I don't know what his story is, but I think this is autobiographical.' "

Dawson brought a lot to the table that day. The hook, "I'm just asking for a friend," was one he had stored in his cellphone, knowing a familiar phrase made it more likely to connect with an audience. The chord progression -- F, B-flat, D, F -- is one he had played with at home. And the guitar he had brought helped shade the sound.

"It was a shitty little $55 miniature, like a ukulele with six strings," he says. "I put it in an open tuning, and for that whole month, I wrote on that little guitar because it was just so inspiring, even though it was a shitty little thing."

Harrington and Beavers brought cigars and tequila, a now-traditional part of their co-writing that dates back to the early 2000s, around the time the two penned Brooks & Dunn's "My Heart Is Lost to You." The alcohol had a positive effect on the mood in the room.

"We just kind of let our inhibitions go loose," says Dawson, "and that's why it is such an emotional song. It's because when you get a little inebriated, your emotions come out, you know. I remember having to Uber home because I was drunk by the end of the day."

Beavers developed a key guitar riff for the piece, and Dawson drove the melodic part of the session, centering on the reedy part of his range. He animatedly paced the room, and it added to the spirit of the day.

"He gets totally fired up about it," says Harrington. "It makes the writing process so fun, because when you get a line that rhymes, he will literally yell out, 'Yes! Yes!' So it spurs you on to want to write better and better."

By the time they had finished, they had "Asking for a Friend" framing the male protagonist as a sympathetic, likable guy who -- despite his inability to own his feelings -- is transparent enough in his third-person dialogue to perhaps affect his lady friend.

The guy is "endearing," says Harrington, "because to approach it that way is a bit more effort, honestly. For that character in the song, after that much effort, it was like a real, genuine 'I'm sorry.' "

Dawson finished negotiating his Atlantic contract in the summer of 2016, and he cut "Asking for a Friend" just a few weeks later at St. Charles, the spacious East Nashville recording studio owned by producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town). Dawson and the band played it from start to finish about five times, and then Joyce tinkered with each verse and chorus, allowing every different section to have its own identity and create an overall arc.

"The intensity, if you will, changes throughout the song," says Dawson. "The verse is kind of chill in the lead-in, and then the chorus brings it huge, and then the second verse kind of gets a little bit more driving with the drums. It just takes you through all the different sides of what this guy's feeling."

Much of the variance came from using two drummers. Kip Allen provided the softer, relaxed rhythms in the verses, while Fred Eltringham came in to overdub more ferocious pops in the chorus. Sam Rodberg brought a soulful sensibility to the bass in the second verse, and Joyce added Dobro in a separate session. Additional guitar harmonics near the song's conclusion create the illusion of a whistle.

Joyce encouraged Dawson to sing it conversationally, getting close in on the mic, almost as if he's whispering in the listener's ear.

"If you notice, every time I say, 'asking for a friend,' it's a different meter," says Dawson. "Every single one has a different kind of feeling."

In the last of those four moments, he asks the woman point-blank, "Is there any way you could ever love him again?" -- then pauses. That hesitation had been built into the song from the outset, but Joyce drew it out a full eight beats before Dawson adds the qualifier: "I'm just asking for a friend." It folds in one final piece of mystery for the puzzle.

"Jay made it a little more dramatic," says Dawson. "You wonder, is the song over, is he going to say, 'Asking for a friend,' or are they just going to go into the outro?"

Dawson's debut single, "All on Me," peaked at No. 2 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 31. That guarantees "Asking for a Friend" will get some attention from programmers -- and from the audience, too. It currently sits at No. 60 in its second week on the  chart, beginning a journey whose ultimate end is a mystery. Just like "Asking for a Friend."