Just days after a heart attack, Mississippi journalist Dustin Barnes was found dead on his couch in his Nashville apartment. He was 38 years old.
And you know what? I can’t do this in an official voice, because Dustin is sitting in the afterlife laughing his backside off watching me try to both hold it together and stay serious as I write about the incredible, loyal, hilarious light in the dark that he was.
Dustin was a great writer. We met when we worked at The Clarion-Ledger, and we have stayed friends through all kinds of journalism adventures. He went on to Nashville to work for the Tennessean (at one time, my dream job) and then USA Today, and I went into TV and then to start Darkhorse.
In his life, Dustin had earned a lot of accolades. Dozens of hundreds of AP and Gannett and USA Today and all the awards you can win, I think. I don’t know how to list them all because I never really impressed a lot of judges with all my murder and mayhem. But he won them all. He was a master at trending topics and social media, but he could also write classic stories that would catch your attention or tear your heart out or drive home a point like a heat-seeking missile. Plenty will be posted as the days go on about the things Dustin did professionally, but I want you to know about one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
If you knew Dustin, you knew all his friends and family. He treasured those closest to him and wasn’t afraid to tell all about every adventure he’d been involved in. He had so much regard for his parents, and if you ever meet them, you’ll know why he was the man he was. They’re funny and gracious and selfless and hospitable, and they love people as openly as Dustin did. When I spoke to his mother Sheila today, they were on their way to Nashville from Walnut to bring him home. I can’t think of them without crying, because I know how much he loved them.
Dustin was a Mariah Carey SuperFan. He literally has a tweet that she liked as his cover photo on Facebook. That extreme fandom was born during an experience in his teens where her song “Hero” broke through to him just when he needed it. She became his lifelong idol, for which we gave him all kinds of heck. He always pretended he was too young to know who Pearl Jam was, and that we were all topping the hill if we thought Eddie Vedder was anything special. We introduced him to Jason Isbell, and he was pretty unsure at first what we were trying to do to him. By the end of the night, he was a fan.
He loved to eat at Babalu, and every time he would come back to Jackson, we would go there. In addition, I would send him photos of Sal & Mookies and Babalu both and rub it in that he had neither in Nashville.
He loved to tell you the entire plot of the TV show he watched that you’re currently trying to binge. He hated it when you told him your dreams and nightmares because dreams are so nonsensical — I remember him getting actually angry about it one day. I tried to tell him it’s the same thing as telling the plot to a TV show, but he didn’t agree.
A Mississippi State University graduate and fan, he always tried to harass me about Ole Miss, where I graduated, and for some reason it never stopped him that I’m no longer really an Ole Miss fan so it rolled right off me. He kept bringing it up anyway, and it was actually pretty endearing. During baseball season, though, he would turn on my Vanderbilt Commodores and make jokes about how they were “bougie” until he moved to Nashville and actually saw them.
I’m quite sure he never admitted it, but he was a closet Vandy baseball fan. I guess I won that one.
He was there for me when the world turned against me. He checked on my Mom until the day she died. He sent presents for my pets. He was the kind of friend who would sit with you while you cried and you weren’t mad at him for it, you just were glad he was there.
When I met this guy about a decade ago and thought he was “the one,” it was Dustin that got in his face and told him in more colorful language, “Mess this up and hurt her and I’ll kill you.” I think that was the one promise I ever saw him break, and that’s fair, because prison is a bad place.
I could tell stories about Dustin until the sky falls. As former MSU Journalism professor Frances McDavid wrote on my Facebook, “So many memories, none of them sad until this moment.”
We all feel that way, at least in all the phone calls, texts, DMs, and comments that I’ve gotten. And I have to ask the question: How do we step in and fill that dark spot that used to be Dustin’s inimitable light? I’m going to start with some Cathead Vodka (or Titos, depending on the wallet situation), a charcuterie tray I made from what’s in the fridge (Dustin always had cheese and pepperoni, even if he had nothing else), the episode of Schitt’s Creek where ole dude sings to David, all the sarcasm I can muster, and I’m going to scroll through all our text messages dating back to 2010, and I am going to remember how really damn lucky I am that we were thrown together for the time we were.
All my love to the other side, Dustin. You were my best friend, my hero, and one really amazing human. Go hug my Mom, because I know she just can’t wait to catch up. I’ll miss you until forever.
P.S. Somewhere out there is some guy named Justin. I never knew his last name, because he said he didn’t want to meet Dustin’s friends. At some point, he moved away and moved on and whatever people do when it was just a passing thing to them.
Well Justin, I saw how he cared about you, and I saw how he pretended to be fine with the way you left things. You and I are *not* friends, but I hope someone told you that he was living such an amazing life, accomplishing his dreams and being the very best person you will EVER know.