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West Virginia-Raised Musician, Artist Daniel Johnston Dead at 58

Harry Cabluck
AP Photo
A mural in downtown Austin, Texas painted by Daniel Johnston.

Musician and artist Daniel Johnston was known for eccentric and sometimes harrowing pop songs colored by childlike innocence and romantic longing.  His life and work have been seen as an inspiration to many artists and musicians.

Johnston was found dead at home Wednesday morning at the age of 58. According to a statement from his family, he died of natural causes. 

Born in Sacramento, California and raised in New Cumberland, West Virginia, Johnston was attracted early on to the pop sounds of groups like The Beatles. In high school, he began making lo-fi recordings using a piano, a chord organ and microphones running through a boombox.

Johnston briefly attended school at a christian college in Texas before enrolling in an art program at the East Liverpool, Ohio branch of Kent State University. 

With a first LP, Songs of Pain, released in 1981, Johnston went on to record and release at least 17 more full-length solo albums -- in addition to numerous side projects and collaborations with other artists. His 1983 release, Hi, How Are You? gained worlwide attention when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a t-shirt of the album cover. 

After some success, Johnston would eventually land full time back in Texas. 

His music career and mental health struggles were the subject of the 2006 feature-length documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. A 2016 graphic novel, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston -- written by West Virginia native Scott McClanahan and illustrated by Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo -- outlined a similar narrative. 

Johnston’s visual artwork included an iconic frog-like creature known as “Jeremiah the Innocent” and adaptations of comic book characters like Captain America. 

A 2004 tribute album featured artists such as Beck, Flaming Lips and Tom Waits. 

An extended version of this story is available here. 

A native of Washington, West Virginia, Dave Mistich joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in October of 2012, as the Charleston Reporter. After bouncing around a variety of newsroom roles at WVPB, he now focuses on state-level politics and government, as well as breaking news. Dave plays on the world's best-worst softball team, Chico's Bail Bonds. He can be reached via email at dmistich@wvpublic.org and you can follow him on Twitter @davemistich.

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