Over a discography of work, some rock bands become closely identified with their frequent record cover artists be it Ken Kelly with KISS, Jim Fitzpatrick with Thin Lizzy, or Roger Dean with Yes and a universe of prog rockers.
But no band/artist relationship is tighter than the Drive-By Truckers and Wes Freed. Freed's paintings and drawings of almond-eyed southern vixens, gimme cap wearing rednecks, devils, weird pastoral scenes, and those creepy long-necked black birds have graced the majority of the Truckers album covers, as well as inside booklets, posters, and merchandise.
Truckers co-founder/singer/guitarist Patterson Hood feels that Freed's best work is the cover of their most recent effort, last year's English Oceans. And it wasn't even a band original. It was a commissioned painting that Freed did for Barr Weissman (who did a documentary on the band, 2009's The Secret to a Happy Ending) of his three daughters.
"And I fell madly in love with it," Hood says. "And while we were recording it, I just kept going back to that was what I wanted the cover to look like, so I got permission. It's my favorite ever."
Hood also recalls that Freed has had some pretty strong opinions on previous records.
"When we were doing what would become Brighter Than Creation's Dark, I gave Wes three different titles we were debating on. And he told me, 'I don't care what you call the record, but I'm doing the cover for Brighter Than Creation's Dark!'"
Soon, a lot more people might also see Freed's work at merch tables in large arenas. For while the upcoming DBT show in Houston is a club gig, it's one of several scheduled during a much larger tour which has the Truckers opening for country superstar Eric Church in huge arenas.
Hood says he's not sure if it was one of Church's people or Church himself who wanted the band on board, but he's happy to show newer and larger crowds what the band and their music is about, just like some year back when they opened on a Tom Petty tour.
"I've never met [Eric], but someone told me he was a fan. And I'd like to think that's true even if it isn't!" Hood laughs.
"I don't think he needs our help with ticket sales, but I'm honored to be given the opportunity to play on a big stage. Even if only 10% of the audience likes us, that's a thousand or two thousand people a night!"
If Hood is sounding upbeat about this latest version of the Drive-By Truckers, it's because he is. Extremely. Since their 1996 formation, there have been more or less 14 "official" band members who've come and gone, with Hood and fellow singer/guitarist Mike Cooley as the only constants.
And while relations among the players have often not been good and some departures abrupt and bitter, Hood is pumped about the current DBTs, which also include longtime drummer Brad Morgan, keyboardist Jay Gonzales, and bassist Matt Patton.
"We're playing well, everybody's healthy, and we're very united as a band. This is how it should be when you're dreaming as a kid of having one. There's a lot of camaraderie now," Hood offers.
"We're hanging out intentionally in the same room as opposed to everyone getting on stage and being as far apart as possible. And we're going through better times in our individual personal lives than in the past."
With English Oceans having been out almost a year now and the band's next being a live album coming sometime this summer, Hood says there is a chance for great flexibility in the set list, and he enjoys mixing and matching songs from the group's entire career.
"Recording songs and playing them live are so different. In our case, the version that is on the record might be only the second or third take. Or first!" Hood laughs. "And when a record is brand new and we're still learning the songs live, we've got to project it to the audience.
"It's like breaking in a pair of new boots. You can wear them more places comfortably after you've worn them awhile," he continues, before stopping himself. "Hey, that's a great analogy! I'm going to have to use that one again!"
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In addition to his songs for the Truckers (records are usually divided between his songs and Cooley's), Hood has released three solo records. But he says he doesn't divide the spoils of his pen in his head.
"At any given time I'm writing, I have the band in mind. The solo records have been exceptions to that. My first, Killers and Stars, was just a bunch of demos I did that people kept asking about, so I pressed up some CDs just to sell at my shows," he says. "And the songs on Murdering Oscar pre-dated the Truckers."
Hood is most proud of his last one, 2012's Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance. Released during a break in Truckers' activity on the heels of marathon recording sessions that yielded two records (The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots), it's his most cohesive work to date.
Many tracks were inspired by Hood's look at both his own current family (a wife, a son and a daughter) and other relatives (his dad is famed Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood). The interior booklet shows Hood investigating and old abandoned family homestead in the woods.
"I am really proud of that record. It was a wonderful experience making it, I had fun touring it, and I had a kick ass band behind me," he remembers. "The Truckers were having some issues...it was one of our turbulent times. So it was great to go out with a band that wasn't hating each other!"
Tomorrow night Houston audiences will get a chance to see the new, friction-free Drive-By Truckers, and Hood has fond memories of the city. "I always have fun in Houston. I remember when we played...what was that club?...Rudyard's in the early days," he said.
Though, there is one historic local venue Hood asks about they definitely won't be playing at -- with or without Eric Church.
"Have they torn down the Astrodome yet?" he asks.
When informed that indeed, the Eighth Wonder of the World was still standing, but a vacant shell of its former self, he is realistic.
"Well, I guess we'll never be playing there," he says. "But I loved the movie they filmed inside there where the kid builds the wings. What was the name of that? [Note: it's Robert Altman's 1970 film Brewster McCloud.] That was awesome!"
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