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In Memoriam: Wes Freed 

April 25, 1964 – Sept. 4, 2022

click to enlarge Local artist and musician, Wes Freed (shown in 2001), passed away on Sept. 4 from cancer.

Scott Elmquist

Local artist and musician, Wes Freed (shown in 2001), passed away on Sept. 4 from cancer.

I was in a band with Wes Freed twice. Once for about a year in his band Dirtball — a thrill for me as a big fan of that band — including a weeklong tour with the Drive-By Truckers. A decade later he invited me to join his new band.

Our band, the Mag Bats (or Mag-Bats, or sometimes just Magbats — we weren’t sticklers) was, like all of his bands, based around Wes’s voice and his songs and the world he had built. And what a world, full of one-eyed owls and murders of crows and scarecrows and mournful ghosts and haunted piney woods.

Playing in a band with Wes was a joy. He radiated encouragement and invention. I never heard him say an unkind word about any musician or artist. He was the least demanding bandleader I ever knew. If we were rehearsing a song and he didn’t like the way it sounded, he wouldn’t complain or shout or try to get us to do it another way. He’d just stop playing that song and start playing another one.

Wes wasn’t much of a guitar player, but his singing and songwriting more than made up for that. His voice had started out as a beautiful baritone and by the time we were in the Bats had wound up as a gruff, evocative sound that was entirely his own — equal parts George Jones and late Bob Dylan.

We started every single show with his tune “Tavern Song,” originally played by his band The Shiners. It’s a song about going to a bar, basically, but it somehow felt like more than that. I always figured it was Wes’s statement of philosophy — life is what it is; expect little, find happiness where you can. “Woke up on the ground again this afternoon/Don’t think I’m trying to complain.”

The Mag Bats played dive bars until 2 a.m. People waltzed and hollered and wept. We made basically no money. I was paid in posters, I guess. Fine with me. He created original poster designs for every show and gave me copies whenever I remembered to ask.

A lot of people talk about his visual art and of course they should. He drew like no one else. He studied art at VCU and knew what he was doing. In his art — and there was a lot of of it; he drew and painted constantly — Wes revisited and reworked an enormous menagerie of strange creatures and symbols. Over time those weird, evocative images overlapped and intertwined and became a visual language that traveled the world. Google “Wes Freed tattoo” and you will see how profoundly his art connected with people. He was like a Southern gothic Keith Haring.

click to enlarge Freed holds up his coffee-table book, "The Art of Wes Freed: Paintings, Posters, Pin-Ups and Possums.” Plan 9 is sold out, but trying to obtain more. Photo from 2020. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Freed holds up his coffee-table book, "The Art of Wes Freed: Paintings, Posters, Pin-Ups and Possums.” Plan 9 is sold out, but trying to obtain more. Photo from 2020.

The thing is, Wes’s art and his music and his life all overlapped. He dressed like he sounded, he wrote like he dressed, and he sang like he painted. Wes loved possums and mountains and crows and moonshine (both kinds) and ghosts and haunted pine forests. All those showed up in the art he made.

For years and years he took in and fostered kittens. He was a sweet, rough gem.

His sudden death is so painful in part because, for the past decade, he was so much better than I’d ever seen him. In the ‘90s, I thought he wouldn’t make it through the decade.

But he did. He started taking care of himself. He seemed more together and happier than I’d seen him. The cancer was rough but he responded well to chemo. Surgery was the last step. A few weeks back, he texted about how well his treatments were going. We were planning to get the band back together, maybe even this month.

He’s gone now and he’ll never make another poster or start another show with “Tavern Song.” I’m so proud to have known him.

Greg Weatherford is a communications pro in Richmond. As Go Weatherford he played drums in Cracker, Chrome Daddy Disco, Dirtball and The Mag Bats. He currently plays in the Richmond-based band Timothy Bailey and the Humans.

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