The Wes Freed Interview
by James Calemine
Rock and Roll artwork weaves an interesting tapestry into the patchwork quilt of American culture. Consider how images and liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, The Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach, Tom Waits’ Orphans, artwork for The Grateful Dead, (or even Ralph Steadman's images for the writings of Hunter S. Thompson) and countless others that augmented and enhanced the experience of listening to the album’s music.
The graphic art of Virginian Wes Freed exists as testimony to this timeless fact. Freed’s artwork has become synonymous with the music of The Drive By Truckers. Every 40 or 50 years comes along an artist whose work captures an essence of a generation, and Freed stands as one of those rare individuals. His sinister Day of The Dead-type art evokes indelible images and resonates in the memory long after it’s seen.
In this March 2010 Swampland interview, we discuss Freed’s youth, art, music, side projects, The Drive By Truckers, other artists and current projects. We look forward to our ongoing series with Mr. Wes Freed.
James Calemine: What came first, your love for drawing or music?
Wes Freed: (long pause) I would say I started drawing long before I played music, but I don’t think the two can be separated in my mind.
JC: I remember reading somewhere you saw a skeleton in a bowling cap, and from there you picked up a style…a Day of the Dead style…
WF: You mention that old DuPont safety magazine my dad had with the warning against drunk driving with skeletons in the car. The dancing skeletons—for some reason I thought that was really cool and that’s what I wanted to draw. I don’t know why I never outgrew that.
JC: I don't know...maybe your keen sense of mortality emerged. You attended Virginia Commonwealth University…
WF: Yeah, the great thing about that was hanging around with other people who were serious about making art and doing it as much as possible.
JC: What was your first band?
WF: That was in high school. I was 15 or 16 in a band called Victim.
JC: What did you start off playing?
WF: I started singing and I learned a little bit of guitar. I’m still not much of a guitar player, but I can play enough to get by and hammer out songs when I’m writing. The whole thing of playing and singing at the same time I’ve never been able to master. To get the mouth to work on a different level than the hands…
JC: You had some other bands Mudd Helmut, Dirtball, The Shiners, which I played yesterday. But your drawing through all this…you remember selling your first picture?
WF: The very first thing I ever sold was in high school. It was a portrait of someone—I can’t remember if it was Gene Simmons or Peter Criss. It was one of the two and somebody bought in high school for a quarter.
JC: Tell me about the Comic Strip Willard’s Garage?
WF: That went back to 1991 or so I think. Friends of mine put out a little independent paper in Richmond and they wanted to have comics. They asked me if I would draw them. I thought about it for a while and that’s what I came up with Willard’s Garage. The name Willard’s Garage comes from this garage I used to pass by everyday on the school bus. I always thought it was called Willard’s Garage, but that was just the sign I could see from their open door for Willard’s Batteries. I don’t remember who owned the garage. I set the whole thing around this place called Willard’s Garage. They worked on cars and hauled moonshine. Clarence and Cobb were the characters—just a couple of fringe dwellers in between one world and another. The thing with Willard’s Garage is all the guys or pumpkin heads or skeletal, but all the girls are just regular ghostly women, but they’re a lot more fleshed out.
JC: Talk about the music and arts scene in Richmond. You were right in the middle of that…
WF: Yeah, well there for a while when the Truckers first got together at the time—we met them a couple of years after they’d gotten together—about the time they started getting together we started this thing Capitol City Barn Dance, which was our band Dirtball and another band called Usedcarlotta got together. It was those guys idea to put on the show that was going to be a monthly thing loosely based on somewhere between Hee-Haw and The Grand Ol’ Opry—but for a lack of a better term this would be more alt-country with a punk rock attitude. Most of us had roots in that area a very strangely common thing this whole type of music is punk rockers getting back to their roots.That brought together the Richmond musicians, painters, art students and various divergent elements. It was really cool because it brought the Richmond community together as well as independent shop owners—the whole thing. We had sponsors and we had a stage set up. It was a really cool thing and it went on pretty good for a while it just petered out.
JC: Many people have become acquainted with your work through the Drive By Truckers music. You’ve done seven records with them.
WF: Yeah, I think that’s right.
JC: How does it work? Do they give you a theme? Is it different for every album? Every song?
WF: It’s different with every record except that I always get rough mixes as the recording is coming along so I can hear individual songs for individual illustrations to get an overview of what the record is going to be like. For The Big To-Do the whole idea for the name and everything has to do with the whole circus thing. We knew that going into it. That proved to be a pretty rich thing to draw from. I could go back and do the whole thing over again with different circus images and still have more stuff because there’s so much to work with there.
JC: Every album tells a visual story. What do you remember about the Dirty South?
WF: I think that one it was my idea to put the Devil in it from “Where The Devil Don’t Stay”, but I think Patterson wanted to do a train or a tornado--both because there ended up being a train and a tornado. He wanted one or the other or both I can’t remember for the song “Tornadoes” or it sounded like a train. That just covered several different images from the different songs. For A Blessing And A Curse, my idea for that just came from the title. That’s why I put Mimosa in it, it’s a beautiful plant when it blooms it smells great, but it’s like kudzu, it just takes over everything. That to me fit the bill for A Blessing And A Curse.
JC: The artwork is important. We’re old enough that we bought albums and would go home and open Some Girls with the artwork or Highway 61 liner notes. The whole package enhanced the music in some ways…
WF: Yeah, just the idea of a package instead of digital. You can read every little bit, and look at the pictures. It’s like getting the ‘Love Gun’ in the Kiss album. To me, it was not only about the music, but having something in your hands while you listen.
JC: Tell me about the NASCAR #7 Jack Daniels car that contained your Truckers artwork.
WF: Well, that was something Scott Munn put together when he was still managing them. The Truckers have always kind of had some sort of—not direct sponsorship or an endorsement or anything—but Jack Daniels has put on listening parties or private shows. It was just a deal that came together. There was nothing kinky about it. They were in Europe when the race happened. I don’t even know half the stuff that went on to make it happen. Somebody else was going to be on it, but they backed out or they were talked into getting The Truckers. It was a logo. It was the three guitars with the barbed wire that was designed by Punchgut. I did a drawing in my style, and The Drive by Truckers logo we were using at the time, which was the Dirty South, I think. There’s a picture of it on one of The Facebook pages.
JC: What are you working on right now? Playing any music?
WF: Yeah. I’ve been recording for—me and Bob Rupe who used to be in Cracker, Gutterball and the Silos—we’ve been recording while we have a chance. Jon Brown—from Horsehead—he’s been pretty with his band Horsehead—they just finished a record, which slowed us down for a long time. We’re just going to put it out ourselves when we get it done. There’s no timetable.
JC: What’s the band and album going to be called?
WF: Right now, we’re calling ourselves The Magnificent Bastards, but I hear there’s another group by that name, so I don’t know what we’ll do. We might go with The Vice Titans. I like that. I’ve never been 100% completely satisfied with a name of a band that I’ve been in although I like Dirtball pretty good. Mudd Helmet was all right, but it was just difficult to explain. We got sued by a manager from that band. She spent a bunch of money we told her not to and then when the band broke up she said we were in breach of contract and she wanted all of that money back. We ended up paying her something, but she was asking for a shitpile. She got a fair amount, so it was equitable. Her lawyer asked us to explain what Mudd Helmet meant, and our lawyer said it didn’t matter. The judge said, ‘Yeah. You’re right. It doesn’t, but I want to know what Mudd Helmet means. We tried to explain, ‘You really don’t…’
JC: I know you’re always drawing. What’s the latest work?
WF: Right now I’m working on posters for the first leg of The Truckers tour. Then I have a commission coming up for a Alice Cooper portrait. I just finished a commission of somebody’s dogs. I do a lot of drawings or paintings of people’s dogs or rock stars they want to see done in my style. Family portraits even sometimes…
JC: I always liked the desert scene with the unknown rider looking over the tour bus…
WF: Oh yeah, that was the gatefold for Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. For that tour they used it as a billboard that was like 15 by 30 feet. That was cool to see.
JC: What’s the difference between Willard’s Garage and Weird Moon Tales?
WF: The Weird Moon Tales was just something that was the title of a magazine that was never really a magazine. There was Weird Tales, but I just wanted to draw the cover (laughs). So, there’s no magazine. It’s an imaginary magazine. There’s several covers, but it depends on the image and the painting. I could call it Willard’s Garage or Weird moon Tales—depending on what fits better and what characters are in it. Or just what my mood is when I’m working on it really. I have another series called 'Hexter the Blood-possum, Wild Tales of a Simple Life...'
JC: Who are a couple of your favorite writers?
WF: I really like Harry Crews. Dallas Hudgens is one. I met him and did a painting for him. He put out a book called Drive Like Hell, which is recommended reading. He’s written another book called Season of Gene, which is really good too—that was about baseball. Drive Like Hell is just—it’s basically a book version of The Southern Rock Opera. It takes place in the south in the late 70s and early 80s. Halfway through writing it, a friend of mine asked him if he’d ever heard of the Drive By Truckers, and he hadn’t. He listened to it, and at the time he was having doubts about his book and listening to The Southern Rock Opera, he was like, ‘Man, somebody else cares about this stuff.' It gave him strength to go on. The book is great. Fantastic. I highly recommend it.
JC: Any other album covers other than the Truckers out there with your work on it?
WF: Not any real high profile things. I don’t do a lot of stuff for other bands. My stuff is pretty identifiable as what it is. I can do other styles and stuff, but I’m not really motivated to do that. I love the Truckers because they use more art than most bands. They really believe in putting out a package. They are all record geeks, and record store fanatics.
JC: The Truckers understand the rock and roll mythology…
WF: Exactly. Growing up in Florence, Alabama, that’s the Bible Belt of rock and roll. So, they come by it naturally. To me, art has always been the art of the great rock and roll record. We try to keep it fresh and evolving, which I think is important. I’d hate for it to get stagnant or real predictable. I think it really has evolved over the years. There are re-occurring themes and characters you’re probably always going to see. It’s an ongoing dynamic thing.
JC: How many Truckers posters will you create for the first leg of the tour?
WF: We’re still discussing that, but it’s going to be at least five or six.
JC: I know it depends, but how long does it take to paint or draw one of those posters?
WF: Yeah, it depends. To actually sit down and draw it takes like a day or two. Sometimes less—but staring at the blank page is what takes a while. At least with the show posters, there’s always something to start with—like a city, club, venue or whatever. Something that gives you an angle or something to start with—like the Ryman or the Fillmore…you have a history to draw from, but like I said it’s a matter of keeping it fresh.
JC: Anything else folks need to know about any upcoming events of yours?
WF: One thing—The Magnificent Bastards are playing a show here in Richmond. We’re opening for Pat McDonald who was in Timbuk 3 at The Playing Field. I think it’s Friday March 19.
JC: Have you spent any time in Athens, Georgia?
WF: Yeah, I’ve been there this year for the Truckers 40-Watt shows they did. A couple of years ago I was down there. Dirtball played there. The Shiners played there. I love Athens. We’re not in the spot where we could move anywhere financially. We’re locked into this real estate, but if I was going to move somewhere in the country, Athens is definitely some place I’d like to live. It reminds me of Richmond in a lot of ways. It’s a town that really has it’s own identity. They also have a real strong sense of community, which is real important.
JC: Well Wes, I appreciate your time. Let’s talk soon…
WF: Hey me too man. Any time…