CategoryRyan Sparks

Wes Freed

CategoryRyan Sparks
Wes Freed

YESTERDAY, ATO RECORDS ISSUED A NEWLY REMASTERED VERSION of the Drive-By Truckers' 2000 live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin’. The record captures DBT in one of their earliest incarnations, equal parts punk rock and Southern rock, pounding out songs that are still staples of their live show.

Just sitting here thinking about a Drive-by Truckers show is enough to make my ears ring and my head hurt. Over the last 10 years I’ve racked up hundreds of miles and some impressive bar tabs to see DBT at venues across the South, places like Tipitina’s in New Orleans, The Nick in Birmingham, Hal and Mal’s in Jackson, and the Moon in Tallahassee, always pushing toward the front with a longneck in each hand and shouting the words to “Let There Be Rock.” Tomorrow I’ll probably call in sick.

Anchored by north Alabama natives Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the Drive-By Truckers came together in the late 1990s in Athens, Georgia. They released their first three albums independently, the last of which, Southern Rock Opera, caught the attention of major labels and was re-released on Lost Highway Records in 2002, a year after its initial release, opening the band up to new audiences. Though DBT still flies under the radar of many mainstream music fans, they’ve spent over a decade establishing a fervent fan base, churning out a string of critically acclaimed albums, and backing up acts like soul singer Betty LaVette and Memphis legend Booker T. Jones.

Alabama Ass Whuppin’ is a document of the band’s early days. The Drive-By Truckers’ appeal stems in part from their honest embrace of Southern culture, even when it means criticizing its flaws. The band stakes out a position as both insider and outsider, and the live versions of songs like “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)” and “Buttholeville” bristle with an angst and aggression that goes beyond the usual country music cliches.

Over the years, the identity carved out by the band’s sound and songs has been illustrated, literally, by artist Wes Freed. The Richmond, Virginia-based artist has done the cover art for every DBT album since Southern Rock Opera, not to mention countless posters, t-shirts, stickers and stage sets. His distinctive style has become synonymous with DBT. Though formally trained as an artist, Freed’s work veers in the direction of folk art and outsider art, giving it a ragged-but-right quality that matches the spirit of the band.

I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on canvas and stretchers, so I would paint on crap that I found in the alleys, like cabinet doors and pieces of cardboard, stuff like that. And it was important that the images fit with the thing that they were being painted on.

Freed knew the Drive-By Truckers in the Alabama Ass Whuppin’ days, but it’s one of the few albums to which he didn’t contribute.

That’s remedied by this year’s reissue, which gets a new cover from Freed, a savvy move that further cements this early gem as a part of the DBT’s cohesive identity and musical legacy.

On the occasion of the reissue, Southern Glossary called Freed at his Virginia home to talk about his work and his relationship with DBT. Freed’s accent is thick and his voice is gruff, but he was friendly and generous with his time. Our conversation was punctuated with long pauses and the occasional whining of a hound dog in the background as the artist reflected on how he got where he is today.

How did your relationship with the Drive-By Truckers come about?

 We’ve tried to figure out exactly when we met. I think it was ‘98, right when they started. It was at the Bubbapalooza. My band Dirtball was playing. we played Friday night, they played Saturday night. My wife and I stayed around Saturday to scout bands for this thing we were doing in Richmond, the Capital City Barn Dance. We were duly impressed when we saw them. She went and talked them, and I was too hung over. But eventually they came up to Richmond to play at the Barn Dance. They stayed at the house, and we just hung out and became really good friends. My artwork was all over the house, and they were starting to work on southern Rock Opera at that time. They were writing songs for it, actually had been for a while, and they were just like “You ought to do the cover for that. That’d be cool.” So I did. And been doing them ever since.

How did you go from that first album cover to being the go-to guy for the band’s art? 

It just kind of worked out that way. At one point, I think it was afterSouthern Rock Opera or after Decoration Day, Patterson was like “All right, you’re our guy.” They liked having a cohesive visual identifier, a look that went with the music.

How do you separate the art you do for the band and art you do for yourself or for other people?

I don’t have to do it consciously because it just kind of happens by itself. If I’m just doing a painting to do a painting or a commission for someone who wants a portrait, it’s not a problem. I only really consciously think about it when I’m doing a record cover or posters or something for somebody else. In that case, I’m always kind of worried that the only reason people want me to do the artwork for their record or poster or whatever is because they want to be identified with the Truckers, and I don’t think that’s really fair. So I try to change it up, never use the same images. My style doesn’t change an awful a lot. I just try to progress. I try to get better. The fact that they’ve got me doing so much work, I’m very lucky to be able to have that much work, and it gives me a lot of practice.

Tell me about your background as an artist. You studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University?

Yeah. I went to community college for a year, back in the [Shenandoah] Valley, Blue Ridge Community College. And then after a year I went to VCU and enrolled in the art program there and graduated. Met a lot of really cool people and had really, really good teachers. The professors were quirky, but brilliant. Very talented people.

What kind of art were you studying? What styles were you interested in as a student?

Initially, the first year, you go through what’s kind of like an art boot camp, and you get schooled in every discipline--sculpture, life drawing, illustration, commercial stuff--basically a little bit of every department. And then at the end of that year you figure out what your major is going to be. I initially wanted to major in Art History or “CA,” commercial art, but by the time I was halfway through art foundation I was like “Nah, I want to be in painting and printmaking. That’s where I want to be.” So I did that and had a minor in sculpture. I took almost as many sculpture classes as I did painting classes.

It was a good experience. I don’t know that it’s a necessary thing. I think in art, if you want to make a career, if you want to get a job in art, you’ve got to get a master’s degree so you can teach. In my case I was just lucky. I didn’t get a master’s degree. I was just lucky to eventually, because of the Truckers, to be able to sell enough art to get by. I’m very lucky.

How did you evolve from your formal training as a student into your own style, which seems to have more of an outsider element?

I think it has a lot to do with just the era that I was there. The ‘80s, basically. There was a pretty strong folk art influence going on around the area at the time. A lot of primitive artists were being shown at the school gallery, the Anderson Gallery, and a lot of teachers were showing that type of stuff. And I was really affected by people working on found objects and hunks of wood. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on canvas and stretchers, so I would paint on crap that I found in the alleys, like cabinet doors and pieces of cardboard, stuff like that. And it was important that the images fit with the thing that they were being painted on.

My work’s changed a lot since then. The stuff I did in college was pretty crude and primitive looking. I know it still looks like that to a lot of people, but it’s actually a great deal more refined than it was. Those were more about the process and being in the moment of the painting, and the stuff I do now is more about the final product, the image.

As a Southerner, do you incorporate the South into your work consciously or is it just something that happens naturally?

I don’t think you can get away from it. I mean, some people might try. But the geography of the Shenandoah Valley has always been the geography of my paintings--the rolling hills, and the gnarly old trees, and the mountains, and the moonlit nights and everything. Later when I moved to Richmond, a lot of the houses in different neighborhoods in which I lived became part of it.

A lot of people who get stuff from me, who buy posters or prints or whatever, a lot of them are Southern expats who are living in Seattle or New York or something, and they’re homesick, and they say that my work reminds them of home.

How did you approach the new cover for Alabama Ass Whuppin'?

I had this really cool old cabinet door, metal, that I wanted to paint on. I was like “This would be a good one to do it on.” I’d never done a portrait of the band themselves that was used on a record. I’ve done some like zombie-fied, which they are kind of on this one, but it’s only the eyes. I don’t know, I was just trying to capture the feel of what it was like when I’d go to see the shows that they were playing during that era, around ‘99.Those were fun times. The band’s so different now, but it’s still just as kickass. 

Brad Rhines' days of tear-assin' through the backstreets of town are over, but you can follow him on Twitter where he often quips and ponders. 

Wes Freed has a variety of prints, posters, and stage set art available for sale on his website