Golden Ticket – Preston Duffee of Hartsville took the stage to sing for American Idol
Competing on American Idol has provided a big platform for a musician from small town South Carolina!
By Jodi Helmer
In the moments before Preston Duffee took the stage to sing for American Idol celebrity judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Ritchie, he was still debating whether to sing a cover of the Tim McGraw hit, She Never Lets It Go to Heart, or perform an original song. One of the American Idol producers gave the 21-year-old artist from Hartsville the push he needed to decide.
“I was trying to talk myself out of [singing my original song, Something to Write About],” he recalls. “One of the producers said, ‘We really think you should do your song…I’ve been doing the show for 18 years and I think it’ll be a hit for you.’”
The producer was right. Duffee stood in front of the judges, strumming his guitar and singing:
I said a prayer to the good Lord
Helped me string together a few chords
Somethin’ that’ll build my sound
And give me something to write about
The performance earned him a “golden ticket” to advance to the next round of American Idol. It means that Duffee would get to perform for the judges in Hollywood and have his performances broadcast into living rooms nationwide. It was a surreal moment for the up-and-coming country star.
“It was really cool to meet [the judges] because I’ve listened to them for years [and] it was cool to hear their feedback,” Duffee says. “They really took time to talk to me, to coach me up a little bit.”
American Idol is a popular singing competition that airs on ABC. The show, which debuted in 2002, helped launched the careers of superstars like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Scotty McCreery.
Duffee watched the show and knew its potential to take his music career to the next level. When a friend sent him a link to audition for the 2023 season, he thought, “It can’t hurt to try.”
Duffee auditioned for producers via Zoom in July 2022 was chosen as one of the artists to travel to New Orleans in October to audition for Perry, Richie and Bryan. It was the start of a wild ride.
The Joy of Making Music
American Idol might have made Duffee a household name, but the competition wasn’t his first time in the spotlight. Duffee has taken the stage with his band at venues throughout the southeast, playing original country music and covers.
It’s a career he’s been pursuing since he received his first guitar as a Christmas gift in 2013 and watched YouTube videos to learn how to play—but playing music isn’t his only passion. Duffee also writes his own songs and takes a lot of inspiration from his country roots and humble, small-town upbringing.
“South Carolina is one of the best places on earth to live,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful landscape on earth…and we share a common way of life and we’re all similar enough to be able to appreciate where we came from.”
Despite abundant inspiration, Duffee once struggled to turn his ideas into lyrics.
“I would talk myself out of [writing] and say things like, ‘I don’t have time, or ‘I’m not going to be good at it,’ or, ‘I’m not creative so I can’t come up with ideas,’” he explains.
Duffee wrote Something to Write About after his mom died by suicide in 2021. It was the first song he ever wrote, and it came together in under an hour. Looking back, he says, “I should have started writing in high school [because] once I finally put pen to paper, it started coming a little more naturally to me and now I write all the time.”
Something to Write About, which included lyrics about dirt roads, truck beds, bonfires and “ball field nights” with friends, resonated. After his American Idol audition, all three judges gave Duffee a standing ovation and agreed Duffee should go through to the next round of the competition; Bryan offered high praise, telling the Hartsville native, “You’ve got a really bright future as a songwriter.”
Fans also loved the song and the single for Something to Write About debuted on the iTunes country charts and raced toward the top spot.
Lyrics that Make a Difference
American Idol producers made it seem like the original country song was a tribute to his mom, but Duffee offers a more nuanced inspiration.
“Growing up, we didn’t have a whole lot of money and we watched our mama struggle to pay bills; we were a very humble household,” he says. “But as bad of times as we may have had, our momma always made sure there were equally as good of times…We had a good life growing up so it was more of a big picture kind of song.”
Sharing the story of his upbringing, including the tragic loss of his mom who had a long battle with bipolar disorder and depression, gave Duffee a platform to talk about mental health.
“I’ve had an overwhelming amount of people connect to it and empathize with it and tell me about [their experiences with mental health and suicide],” he says. “It’s just very special to me to be able to be of comfort to people.”
Making music that strikes a chord with fans is always top of mind for Duffee. He recently released a new single, Ain’t It Just Like You, which also debuted on the iTunes charts within 24 hours of its release. The lyrics to his latest single also focus on hope and redemption:
I lose my hope
I lose my faith
And my ability to think straight
Sometimes, I lose my mind
Want to give up
Want to give in
Just wanna run away
With the wind, get gone
But honey you keep me strong
Duffee knows that country music has a reputation for being about lost loves, pickup trucks, blue collar jobs and dogs—and he embraces those themes in his own music.
“I don’t write to be cliché; I write because I’ve done things and I’ve experienced things,” he explains. “There is a reason [country music] is similar; we live that way and we’re proud of it.”
The Next Verse
On American Idol, Duffee is having an experience that has taken him far from his South Carolina roots. He’s traveled to New Orleans, Nashville and Los Angeles, spent time among top billboard artists and done countless media appearances; the process has been a whirlwind—and much different than Duffee expected.
“I was so worried about it being a competition,” he explains.
Instead, Duffee found a supportive community of artists from all genres and backgrounds who share his passion for music. Outside of the hectic American Idol schedule, the competitors hang out together, singing; Duffee is part of a group text message chain with other singers in the competition who exchange messages daily.
“I was worried about watching [the show] because [the experience of filming and performing] was such a blur…when I finally did watch it, it settled me back into that moment. I so thoroughly loved to be there and filming and enjoying the atmosphere,” he says. “It’s more like a summer camp in the way that you make genuine friendships.”
Back home in Hartsville, his family and the community have been equally supportive.
“They’ve all been very gracious to me, and everybody is willing to help get [promotional merchandise] made or help with travel—just people just being very supportive in the best way,” he says.
Duffee knows he’s facing tough competition on American Idol. Although he can’t talk about the timeline of the television recording, the duet and showstopper rounds were filmed in Hollywood and aired on primetime; Duffee watched the broadcast at home in Hartsville.
While he’s watching the show and keeping up with the results, Duffee is also writing and recording as much as possible during breaks and enjoying every minute of the experience.
“I think writing and recording is very important as far as capitalizing on the attention from the show [and] the approach we’re all taking is release, release, release, release for as long as we can,” he says. “I play for a living right now and I’m going to keep playing; music is my career and I want to keep expanding and releasing songs and playing in higher capacity venues.”
Eventually, Duffee hopes his music will be so well known that the audience knows the lyrics and Duffee will be able to look out into the crowd and see them signing his songs.
“I want play venues where there are enough people singing my music back to me that I don’t have to use the microphone; I can put it down and hear them singing,” he says. “That’s the dream.”