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Wes Freed is a Richmond, Virginia-based musician, "outsider" artist, illustrator, and actor whose works have appeared on the album covers of numerous American rock bands, including Cracker and Lauren Hoffman. With the assistance of graphic design / layout artists Lilla Hood and Jenn Bryant, Freed is almost single-handedly responsible for creating the artistic aesthetic of the immensely popular, Athens-via-Alabama rock band, Drive-By Truckers.
Born April 25, 1964, Wes Freed grew up on his family's cattle farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The feel and look of this area has inspired most of his landscapes and many of the characters who appear in his paintings and comics. According to Freed, when he was about seven years old he ran across a DuPont safety magazine that featured a drawing of a bottle-wielding, bowler hat wearing skeleton driving a roadster. He said he became so enamored of the idea of a boozy hot-rod driving skeleton, that he's been painting variations on that theme ever since.
In the mid-1980s, Freed attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he earned a degree in Painting and Printmaking. Among his influences at VCU were Professors James Bumgardner and Myron Helfgott, as well as Lester Van Winkle, Joe Seipel and James Bradford. According to Freed, the influence was not so much a matter of influencing his own artwork or style, but because they shared his profound love for live music, British motorcycles, and low-cost alcoholic beverages.
In the early 1980s, Freed formed and became the frontman for several bands, including the punk rock Mudd Helmut, the hillbilly soul of Dirtball, and country-influenced and critically acclaimed band, The Shiners. While in Dirtball and The Shiners, he shared vocal duties with his wife Jyl, whom he married Feb. 29, 1996. According to aficionados, the couple's combined vocals have been favorably compared to the seminal L.A. punk band, X.
Also during that time, Freed began drawing a comic strip he called "Willard's Garage" that ran in various alternative newspapers in the Richmond area. "Willard's Garage" told stories of the somewhat fictional "Crow Holler", a Celt-Appalachian lore-laced location inhabited by skeletal moonshiners and other mystical / comical characters. Of all of the characters, the most popular by far was Hexter the Blood Possum, who eventually had his own spin-off comic entitled "Wild Tales of a Simple Life". Hexter also garnered a pivotal role in the plot of Jim Stramel's "rednexploitation" movie, "The Thrillbillys", which starred Freed and fellow musicians Angry Johnny and Erin Snyder.
Through a variety of circumstances, in 2001 Freed began appearing in various regional television commercials in the role of "a redneck type character", including one for the North American chain of junkyards known as Pick-N-Pull or U-Wrench-It.
Freed's relationship with the band started in the mid-90s, when Freed was touring with his now-defunct group, Dirtball, a critically acclaimed band that Allmusic called "alt-country at its finest." Freed first saw the Drive-by Truckers play at Atlanta's Bubbapalooza in 1996 and asked the them to play the Capital City Barn Dance, a monthly series of alt-country shows that the Freeds, along with several other Richmonders hosted, and a friendship was born.
The Truckers have remained friends with the Freeds since that time, often staying with them when they played shows in Richmond. It was there that the band first saw Freed's artwork and felt his vision meshed well with their musical sensibilities.
When DBT began work on their ambitious two-disc project, Southern Rock Opera, they asked Freed to contribute some of the album art for the series of punk-inspired roots-rock songs loosely based on the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as Hood’s own experience coming to grips with the contradictions of his Southern heritage.
The album was widely praised after its release in 2001, earning four stars from longtime Rolling Stone critic David Fricke. The Truckers unique sound and rowdy shows drew crowds and soon elevated them from struggling touring band to regular sellout.
Freed also painted and designed the album covers and booklets for the band's 2003 release, Decoration Day, 2004’s The Dirty South, 2006's A Blessing and a Curse, and 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark.
On top of his work for DBT, he is also called upon to do illustrations for various advertisements, and generally has a waiting list of commissions that he is working on, as well as trying to find time to sneak in an occasional piece that he is doing for his own enjoyment. One current project he's very proud to be involved with is Hoosier Biker Jim Bantz's Shop Truck project, which will feature paintings and artwork by various American folk artists, including the late Harley Warrick, who painted an estimated 20,000 of the mid-western barns advertising Mail Pouch tobacco. Freed has completed a dash board for the truck, and will be adding more to the door panels in the near future. When completed, the truck will be a museum-worthy tribute to contemporary folk art, as well as a rolling piece of Americana.
Freed stopped actively pursuing a musical career around 2001, partially to be able to concentrate more on his artwork. With his weekends free for the first time in his adult life, he was able to become a full-time NASCAR fan. One of his favorite memories and crowning achievements is having had his signature "Drive-by Truckers" lettering featured on the #07 Jack Daniel's Nextel Cup car, driven at the time by NASCAR driver and former World of Outlaws Champion, Dave Blaney. This was facilitated by The Drive-by Truckers affiliation with the Jack Daniels company.
Before his affiliation with Drive-by Truckers, Freed was rapidly becoming popular for his renderings of famous musical artists, and still gets a lot of commission requests for a wide variety of musicians. Among some of the portraits he has done through the years have been Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Richard Thompson (musician), George Jones, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr., Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, Ronnie Van Zant, Ronnie Van Zant & Robert Johnson (musician), Gram Parsons and Keith Richards, Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard playing poker, Nick Cave, The Band, The Carter Family, Jerry Garcia & Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and more.