The Love List

est. 2006 // BY JESS GRAVES

The Rock N' Roll Love Story of Duquette and Morgan Johnston

PEOPLE, MUSIC, APRIL15Jess Graves
Photo: Morgan Johnston

Photo: Morgan Johnston


By Morgan Johnston

How do you tell about thirteen years of wild love in a concise way?

I was a senior in high school, riding high on the new wave of rock and roll ushered in by The Strokes. When they finally played a local show, I went running. But it wasn't the headliner  who made that night so memorable -- it was the opening act, a band called Cutgrass. I braved the thick sweaty crowd to the front of the stage where a beautiful, wild eyed, blue jean-clad rock and roll boy sang and danced like a real Mick Jagger. I told my girlfriends right then, “I am going to marry that man.”

Months passed. I graduated high school, got an apartment and a job, and planned to live in Birmingham for six months before moving to London for college. But it seemed like everywhere I went, I kept seeing that guy. Driving down the road, standing in the back of a concert, grabbing a smoothie at 2pm on a Monday clearly having just woken up. Eventually, we spoke. He said we should hang out sometime. My teenage heart fluttered.

As many of these love stories go, what followed was a considerable period of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I had grown up under the hand of a very strict mother, so with my first taste of independence, I went wild. This handsome, troubled, older man had no idea of my innocence. I simply observed what was around me and, when offered, said yes. I glamorized cocaine use. It made me skinny. It made me brave. It made me bold. It made my heart pound in a way that had nothing to do with teenage fantasies. And it was awful - the scariest time in our lives. Somehow, we ended up together over and over despite the drug-induced lies, cheating and broken promises. In those years, I loved him and I hated him. But he was a friend, a confidante... he was that magnetic being that I couldn't pry myself away from.

Then, things fell apart hard. Duquette's high-speed living caught up with him in the form of a drug arrest, and he was sentenced to a maximum security correctional facility. The day Duquette went to jail, we began writing each other letters. His song “Don’t Go Back to Etowah” began as a letter to me. He wrote it in a five by eight foot cell with no guitar, just pen and paper.

In a  miraculous turn of events, he was released to a rehab facility instead of serving time in prison. His record would be wiped clean upon completion of the program. We wrote each other letters every day he was gone. What began as a court-ordered stint in rehab would change both of our lives in the most amazing way. Neither of us had a drug problem. We had a life problem.

As we grew, we cleaned up our acts. We both found God - coincidentally (or perhaps not) penning each other a letter about the experience on the same day. We honestly loved each other, but we were open to the possibility that life might take us in different directions. He finished rehab, wiped his record clean, and continued to live at the facility as a resident advisor. I took a job in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. But we were still together, and we still wrote each other letters every day. I lived for those letters. I saved every one. I keep them in a safe deposit box as my most treasured possession. 

Duquette had been writing songs while working at the rehab center and eventually got a record deal. He moved to the Teton Mountains of Wyoming to write the record “Etowah.” I ended up driving from Washington to Wyoming with a car full of clothes and books, and we lived together there for the first time. It had gravity in a way that can only be understood by standing in the midst of great mountains. Living with someone for the first time is hard. We saw the mundane parts of each other that would shatter the illusion. And yet it didn't matter. We hiked up into glacier lakes. We avoided moose and bear. 

Eventually, we had to return to Alabama. The beautiful cross country drive marked the first of many for us. We were so broke, we had no idea where we were heading besides eastward.

Life took its standard turns with us: a brief breakup, moving in together, getting engaged, getting married, buying a home, trying to figure out life while making music and art. It wasn’t always easy, but we faced it and triumphed with faith, forgiveness and unconditional love. On the other side of the hard times were great ones. After two years working in the studio, Duquette released his most recent album, “Rabbit Runs a Destiny”.

Then, we found out we were having a baby. It shook up our world. In the many years we had been together, we didn't believe I could conceive. It just wasn't going to happen for us. And then it did, during one of the busiest, most stressful, high-stakes time of our lives. I had a tough pregnancy and birth, immediately followed by a life-threatening infection that began shutting down my organs. We stopped everything. Duquette focused on caring for me and our newborn son night and day, and made family a priority for the first time in our lives. It was then I believe we truly learned how to take care of each other. Miraculously and at the hands of an amazing doctor, we healed. I healed. We focused on our health and being present with each other as we experienced the first year of parenthood. It was worth every moment, despite the setbacks in other areas of our lives. The lost year of momentum paled in comparison to what we'd gained. 

We have learned that you can work and work on something, towards something, but if you lose focus of what really matters in your life, arriving at the destination isn't worth much. So I am grateful we detoured. We have taken the scenic route. And while I know where we ultimately want to be, I am so happy with where we are now.

Our son, Tennessee Wolf just turned one year old. I feel like we understand God in a way that we never did before- the love you feel for your child is like the love that God feels for us. It is deep and powerful. And now, we can begin rebuilding our momentum. Duquette is in pre-production for the followup to "Rabbit Runs a Destiny." I am working on Rugged and Fancy while also working in wellness as I explore a new appreciation of my own health. Tennessee is working on climbing and some new words. We get to make art. We get to be a family. We get to say "I love you" - and mean it in a deeper way than ever.  

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"Love story" is a series featuring a musician, their partner, and a personal account of their falling in love. Duquette Johnston is a singer-songwriter living in Birmingham, Alabama. His album "Rabbit Runs a Destiny" is available on Spotify and iTunes. Morgan Johnston is the writer and photographer behind ruggedandfancy.com, where she documents her life with Duquette and their son, Tennessee Wolf.