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April 26-28, 2024

Word of South

Duquette Johnston

In 2014, Duquette Johnston and his artist wife Morgan had their first child, after many years together. But their joy became complicated, as Morgan fell ill with a bacterial infection and nearly died. When Duquette, who’d been gearing up to promote his third solo album, stepped away from the music business to take care of his wife, it was the beginning of an unexpected new chapter in his life.

And at first, one full of uncertainty. Fortunately, he’d just landed a song placement in a TV spot for University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, appropriately enough with a cover of Delaney & Bonnie’s “Never Ending Song of Love.”

“I’d stopped everything in my life at that point, so that commercial was like a little nest egg for us,” Duquette says. “I was just taking care of my son, and taking care of my wife, trying to get her back to being the best woman she could be. In the middle of that, I started writing songs. It was a slow process, but I wrote constantly. All I had was my wife, my son and my guitar.”

The result of all Johnston’s expanded creativity now takes shape in The Social Animals, a new album that reverberates with hopefulness and an awe for the mysteries of our dandelion existence. Though the album has been finished since 2017, Johnston says, “I don’t think it was supposed to come out back then. I don’t think the meaning behind some of the songs mattered as much as they do now.

Johnston’s optimism is born out of much personal evolution and expansion, over what he calls his “wild, incredible life.” Raised in Birmingham and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, he started playing music and promoting punk rock shows in high school, which led to him playing bass in late ’90s Merge Records buzz band Verbena. “We were having all this crazy success, touring with the Foo Fighters, then everything fell apart in my life,” Johnston recalls. “I left the band, my home life at the time fell apart, and I started doing drugs. I thought I had to live in misery to create great art. But that is a freaking lie the world will tell you.” In the early ’00s, a drug charge landed him in Etowah County Correctional Facility. Resolutely positive (“There is beauty in darkness if you seek it out” Johnston says in Etowah, a short documentary about his time in lock-up), he got out and and went on to release four solo albums, including Etowah (2006) and Rugged & Fancy (2010). “Music is center for me,” Johnston says.