Lead singer of Dirt Ball. Painter. Actor. Meet Wes Freed. You've never met anyone like him. 

Hillbilly Soul

Wes Freed is in his element.

Behind the tinted glass of Babe's in Carytown, the tall, scruffy singer tilts back his head and dingy, white cowboy hat and takes a long pull off of his Miller High Life, chasing it down with a drag from his GPC.

Freed waits casually in front of the stage while his band Dirt Ball tunes up behind. It's like he's been up there a thousand times. Maybe that's his thousandth beer, maybe his thousandth cigarette. His thousandth belch.

Freed's wife, Jyl, stands next to him with her own bottle and smoke. Her thick, plastic-rimmed glasses reflect the audience — a hazy sea flush with Marlboros and Budweisers.

Another drag. Another swallow.

Dirt Ball is ready. Freed takes one more swig, squints his bloodshot eyes nearly shut, closes his fist around the mic and waits for his cue.

The band is barely a whisper. But Wes and Jyl release a wail fit for any respectable prison road crew. Their voices rise and fall with the rhythm of a swing blade, and the audience is sure of one thing.

This is real country.

It's perfect that Wes Freed plays a country outlaw in the upcoming film "The Thrillbillys," and not because he was arrested once during his VCU art-school years, drinking heavily one day and toting a menacing-looking BB gun outside of a 7-Eleven. "Brandishing a firearm at a police officer in such a manner as to instill fear in said police officer." Freed remembers the violation verbatim.

The role of a rampaging hillbilly seems natural for a guy who's liable to pass you a bottle of moonshine the first time he meets you. This singer/artist/actor is one of Richmond's true characters. Wes Freed is best known for singing in the local alternative-country band Dirt Ball and for his unusual paintings. He's also an actor. He's been on local television for months wearing a yellow baseball hat and doing all the talking in those Chesterfield Auto Parts commercials. "The part was obviously made for a dumb-ass Bubba like me," he says.

Wes Freed has been the soulful wail in front of the long-struggling Dirt Ball since 1986, crooning with a twang that evokes the spirit of Hank Williams, one of Freed's heroes.

The band began as an acoustic version of Freed's punk-rock outfit, Mudd Helmet, and released its third alternative-country album this year, its second on locally owned Planetary Records.

Jyl and Wes Freed were the two main promoters of the now-defunct Capital City Barn Dance, at one time a monthly showcase of local, regional and even national alternative and alternative-country acts. During its full moon, the Capital City Barn Dance reigned over the local music scene — it could boast appearances by Cracker and Joan Osborne when both were in their heyday.

But the Capital City Barn Dance, what Jyl calls the "alternative-country Grand Ole Opry with skits, music, musicians, you name it," didn't last forever. Jyl and Wes couldn't keep it going. Jyl says the roving venue went from the Flood Zone to the smaller club Alley Katz, and then to the even smaller Dog Town Lounge on South Side. "Then it went even smaller and we weren't doing it," she says.

But they're still doing Dirt Ball, and some might say better than ever. The band's latest CD, "Turn Up The Barn," was reviewed in the May/June issue of the national magazine No Depression, the Spin of alternative-country music. In the review, the anonymous Claire O. writes: "… if you're weak for bleak, this is the malbum for you … and song to song, singer Wes Freed is the real indeedy-roo lead deed. Claire loves like Pop Rocks in NyQuil the depraved misery of 'Turn Up The Barn' …"

Any review in a magazine like No Depression, especially for a CD released months ago, is an honor, Freed says, "even though it's weird. It was a good review."

"She actually likes the record," Freed says, standing in the cluttered living room of his Mechanicsville Cape Cod, sipping from a can of Milwaukee's Best. "… I think."

[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly) Freed's place is just right for the artist and his art. It's overflowing with empty beer cans and cobwebs. The stacks of paintings that don't fit on the walls share every crammed corner with old, dusty guitars, empty bottles of liquor and disintegrating furniture. Jyl says that the house, hidden behind what appears to be just one, enormous, never-ending patch of weeds and overgrown bushes, "hasn't been dusted in at least four years."

You could say the same for Freed — with his frayed and dirty white cowboy hat, his worn-out boots held together by a strip of duct tape, and his dusty jeans-jacket over his perpetually unbuttoned flannel shirt. More than style, those are all part of Freed's substance. It's like every part of Wes Freed grew there.

"As far as I've known him," says Freed's band mate Jeff Liverman, "he's always been like that."

Liverman, a Science Museum of Virginia employee, plays guitar and mandolin in Dirt Ball. He's known Freed since he joined the band in 1991. "I guess I wouldn't peg him for an artist if I just met him."

Freed, 36, is an unconventional artist. He prefers driftwood and old, discarded furniture to canvas and buys the cheapest supplies he can find. The medium is perfect for his artwork — pastoral scenes full of moonshine-drinking skeletal figures, dancing possums, black cats and twisted trees.

Freed learned to paint at Virginia Commonwealth University. But his inspiration hit him way before his first high school art class, when he found an image in his dad's papers that influences his work to this day. It's not surprising that Freed paints country scenes of scarecrowlike figures come to liquor-fueled life at midnight.

"My dad worked at DuPont when I was younger," Freed says. "He had one of these DuPont safety magazines. There was an article in one of them, about a drunk driver, and it had this great drawing in it of like, these skeletons. And they were all wearing these derby hats and caps and top hats and stuff like that, and holding bottles in their hands, and they were in an old Hudson Terraplane or something like that — careening down the road. And when I saw that — I thought it was just the coolest thing I'd ever fucking seen. I been drawing that kind of shit ever since then," Freed says. "I just loved it. But I didn't quite take it the right way."

Freed says he followed that careening muse all the way to art school, picking VCU "because they didn't have a math requirement, and I'd heard it had a pretty good art department."

He had planned on majoring in art history or commercial art, something that pays. But he decided halfway through art foundation program that painting was his love.

"I said — 'Wow, this is pretty cool. I don't want to do [commercial art] shit, I want to make paintings. I want to make drawings. I want to be an artist.' And I been poor ever since."

Freed's art sometimes loosely chronicles the events and characters that populate a fictional place called Willard's Garage. The name comes from a misconception Freed made as a child in elementary school when his school bus would drive by an old, abandoned garage every day. "The door was always open," Freed says, "and there was a big sign inside that said Willard's. But it was for Willard's Batteries. I always called it Willard's Garage."

Willard's Garage might as well be Freed's "Rosebud," the childhood vision that is so intangibly important to the adult. The vision hangs all over town — on Dirt Ball fliers and albums, in the pages of Punchline, on the walls of local businesses like Urban Artifacts and the old Moondance Saloon, and on Cracker's last album, "Gentleman's Blues."

Freed left Willard's Garage behind when he left his hometown, the small, western Virginia town of Crimora in the Shenandoah Valley. But the shadow of that desolate and dilapidated building hangs over everything Freed does. Art, music, home life — it all blurs together and none of it would look odd inside Willard's Garage.

When he wrote Freed's part in "The Thrillbillys," Jim Stramel didn't know him at all. But the director had seen Freed around town and had in mind a seedy-looking character in a flannel shirt, cowboy hat and ragged boots who carried a lot of attitude. Stramel says that Freed was a perfect fit, who "was just made for [the part], just perfect. He came with his own wardrobe."

Stramel calls "The Thrillbillys," now in postproduction, an "exploitation movie" set in the mythical Jodhpurs County, Va. Freed plays Wes Cole, a moonshiner who, along with his brother Dodger, discovers that his family's moonshine still has been destroyed by contractors building a Wal-Mart. For revenge, the brothers go on a stickup rampage through the countryside. "It's Jesse James with a hot rod," Stramel says. "And moonshine. Jesse James liberating the South from carpetbagging convenience stores and Wal-Marts."

The role Freed plays in "The Thrillbillys," and especially the setting, is not a far stretch from Freed's real life in Crimora.

"I grew up in the sticks," Freed says. "You had country music, or top-40 country music. That was about it."

"When he was 10 he was a card-carrying member of the Willie Nelson fan club," Jyl says.

Freed led a normal small-town life — high school, high school clubs, music. But sounds coming from the world outside kept him from following in his dad's footsteps as a cattle farmer.

"When I was in high school," Freed remembers, "I was an officer in Future Farmers of America. I was secretary two years in a row. I should've moved up to vice president, but I didn't because I eschewed farm life for the more rock-and-roll lifestyle, and somebody else got the position."

After growing up on Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, Freed was just discovering The Clash and Gang of Four in high school after finding two of the albums in a bargain bin. He still remembers the heartbreak he experienced when some other kids vandalized one of his first paintings. It was an attack that told Freed that his community didn't know him very well at all.

"I drew a big picture for a bulletin-board of a punk-rock looking kid listening to The Clash," Freed says. "And all the rednecks from the school took a big magic marker and wrote 'David Allan Coe' all over it … and, I love David Allan Coe. I loved his music and I still do… They were being very intolerant of anything that wasn't exactly what they wanted to hear."

Freed wanted to hear rebellion, and it didn't matter where it was coming from. "Well, yeah, at that point, 'cause I was a fucking high school kid. All I wanted to do was fuck shit up. I was into rebellion. If it was redneck rebellion, or leftist, English, Sandinista sort of shit, I didn't really give a shit. Fill me full of Guinness and start playing IRA rebel songs and I'm gonna get pissed off."

"He ain't happy unless he has something to be angry about," Jyl says. "Wes is always for the underdog, and he gets really ticked off about it and has to scream and shout and wave swords and guns around and at the very least shake his fist and sing songs about it."

[image-2](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Wes and Jyl's Mechanicsville home is filled with objects that either are or will be used for Wes' art. His desk is cluttered with work for his current project — T-shirt art for The Drive-By Truckers. Freed moved to Richmond, what he thought was the big city. But soon after arriving, Freed says, "I started pining for living back in the country."

"It's just kind of the deal where you get separated from what you're used to," Freed says in a booth at Joe's Inn in the Fan. Empty beer pitchers and full ashtrays litter the table. "And you go back to your roots. … I moved to Richmond and everybody was listening to The Clash and Gang of Four, and I wanted to listen to Hank Williams again ... and Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe … all the old country music artists. And also, I was hearing this new shit that was coming out by the Gun Club, and Jason and the Scorchers … True Believers and True West and Green on Red and those people just fucking knocked me on my ass and I was like, `Goddamn, these people are playing country music with a punk-rock sensibility, and it's got all the heart and soul that old country music used to have. …' It's got that fucking kick-you-in-the-ass sort of feel that Hank Williams used to have and it was great, it was fucking beautiful." Freed punctuates his sentence by gulping down the last of his beer.

Jeff Liverman refills all the mugs for the umpteenth time, and laments how Dirt Ball's current direction keeps the band in the underground.

"We won't get played on a country station," Liverman says.

"We won't never get played on a country station," Freed says. The music is too old-fashioned sounding for top 40, and too new to be played after a Hank Williams tune.

Jyl nearly explodes with laughter when she's asked if there are any royalties from Dirt Ball. There aren't any. "It's sick how poor we are," she says. "Me and Wes are so, so far in debt — it's unspeakable. And a lot of it is kind of due to Dirt Ball."

"There's a shitload of sacrificies made," she says. "And honest to God, I don't know why. I don't think any of us know why the hell we're doing it. Because there's not a dime to be made in it. Even if we get kind of big, for what we're doing, we're never going to get rich, and we know that. But we just do it anyway. And I don't know if we're a bunch of retards, or what. I don't know what's driving us, but we can't help ourselves."

Just back from performing at the Bubbapalooza festival a few weeks later ("You can imagine what type of music they play," Freed says), Wes and Jyl are still spirited from seeing so many of their old friends. There are a lot more shows, a lot more sacrifices, on the way this summer.

For now Jyl and Wes are back home, back doing what they've been doing together for the last four years. Wes is working on T-shirt art for friends The Drive-By Truckers. Jyl wants Wes off the phone so she can get on the computer, maybe to find out what's been happening on the Internet discussion group for alternative-country called "Postcard 2."

Word generated on the P2 about the No Depression review recently piqued the interest of an American music distributor living in Japan. He contacted Jyl and Planetary Records and just ordered 100 copies of "Turn Up The Barn" for Japanese distribution.

"Hopefully, it will lead to a Japanese tour," Freed says. "Dirt Ball live at Budokan is what we're looking for."


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