Renaissance Man – Wes Freed

 

In Wes Freed’s world, possums drink moonshine by the gallon.

 

Skeletons in coonskin caps play the fiddle, and backwoods Jezebels run around buck naked in the moonlight.

 

Think “Night of the Living Dead” meets “Hee Haw,” and you’re getting warm.

 

For years, the Richmond artist left his mark on album covers, concert posters and gallery walls. Tomorrow, Freed’s artwork debuts on a different kind of canvas: Dave Blaney’s No. 07 Chevrolet in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400.

 

It might be hard to spot going a hundred miles an hour at the Richmond International Raceway, but Blaney’s Monte Carlo will feature Freed’s art for the band Drive-By Truckers. The logo (along with decals for team sponsor Jack Daniel’s) is featured on the hood, the trunk and both side panels.

 

Besides his visual art, Freed is probably best known for his now- defunct bands Mudd Helmet, Dirtball and The Shiners. (You also may recognize Freed from his TV commercials for Chesterfield Auto Parts. He’s one of the slow-talking junkyard layabouts who encourage you to “bring a buck and a toolbox.”)

How did the big man in overalls go from singing “Hillbilly Soul” at Alley Katz to doodling on a multimillion-dollar stock car?

 

“It was just one of those times when all the stars aligned,” said the artist’s wife, Jyl.

 

Scott Munn, a former manager of the Drive-By Truckers, used his racing connections to broker the deal. It seemed a natural fit, since almost every Truckers song mentions (or was inspired by) whiskey.

And Mr. and Mrs. Freed are just nutty for NASCAR.

 

“It’s the best soap opera going,” said Wes.

 

A lifelong fan of racing, Freed said he didn’t became a devoted NASCAR man until his band The Shiners broke up in 2002.

 

“I had weekends off for the first time since I moved to Richmond [in 1983],” said Freed. “We didn’t have cable, and there wasn’t much else to do on a Sunday afternoon.”

 

The Freeds’ house is Martha Stewart’s nightmare, but that’s the way they like it. Both admit to being “insufferable pack rats.”

 

“Jyl collects telephone tables, and, apparently, I collect dust,” he said.

 

But what their Mechanicsville home lacks in glossy surfaces and feng shui, it makes up for with sheer eccentric charm. Once you enter – through the side porch, past the pile of gas cans and the torn screen door – you are clearly someplace else.

 

The walls are crowded with Freed’s paintings, drawings and sculptures. Magazines and records sit in dusty stacks. Cobwebs stretch across a mantel of knickknacks. A few fake human skulls complete the picture.

 

The house is frighteningly appropriate for the man who describes his art as “nostalgia for a place that never really was.”

 

Freed sat behind his drawing table in the corner, surrounded by brushes, paints and pens. Looking plucked from one of his own paintings, he is a big man in an unbuttoned work shirt. A woolly mutton chop buries each cheek. His dented and dirty cowboy hat looks like it survived the Alamo.

 

“I’ve known a lot of bands, but I’ve never seen anybody who’s worked as hard as the Drive-By Truckers to get where they’re at,” said Freed.

 

The Freeds first met the Truckers at the “Bubbapalooza” music festival in Atlanta. The pair were instantly impressed by the Athens, Ga., quintet.

 

“When the Truckers played, it was like a breath of fresh air,” Jyl said.

 

From then on, every time the Truckers played Richmond, they stayed at the Freed house. Even as the group gained national and international fame, it found time to play gigs in Richmond.

 

Before releasing their breakthrough album, 2002’s “Southern Rock Opera,” the Drive-By Truckers asked Freed to do the cover art. In addition to posters, T-shirts and stickers, he has provided the art for every album cover since.

 

“I’m just bragging on Wes,” Jyl said, “but we actually get letters that say people bought the record because the artwork caught their eye.”

 

Making the transition from center stage to behind the scenes suits Freed just fine.

 

“It’s a wonderful feeling as an artist and a musician,” he said. “For me it’s been better than playing music. I like traveling, but I found out that I’m more of a homebody.”

 

A regular face on the local scene, Freed doesn’t get out much anymore. These days, you’re more likely to find him hunkered over his drawing table than a bar.

 

Unfortunately, there’s a reason besides work that keeps the Freeds close to home. Several years ago, Jyl was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that causes the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues and organs. Most days, she struggles with extreme fatigue, pain and debilitating arthritis.

 

Freed feels lucky that he’s able to be there for his wife. Some days that means helping her move from room to room; other days, it’s just popping the top on her can of Diet Coke.

 

The Freeds plan to stay home tomorrow to watch the race on TV with some friends. They figure it’s the best chance to actually see his artwork, since from the stands it would be nothing but a blur.

 

“It’s strange,” Freed said about his art’s NASCAR premiere. “We always joked about how cool it would be. And now, to see it on a Jack Daniel’s car? That’s so cool.”

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 9, 2005.
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