Wes Freed, the visual artist whose surreal Southern-gothic images of shadowy figures, ominous owls, and black flamingos adorned album covers by Drive-By Truckers, has died at 58. Freed was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in January and a GoFundMe campaign was underway to help pay for his treatment. The band’s publicist confirmed Freed’s death to Rolling Stone.
The Richmond, Virginia-based Freed, who attended art school at Virginia Commonwealth University, began collaborating with Drive-By Truckers on 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, the group’s ambitious double album inspired by the 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. Working with a mix of marker, watercolor, and acrylic paint — usually on wood — Freed went on to design the album art for the next seven Truckers albums, including 2004’s The Dirty South, which Freed told writer Matt Wake was his favorite cover in a 2019 interview. As Wake expertly put it then: “Freed’s art looks just like Truckers music sounds.”
The band chose photographs for two of their more politically charged albums — 2016’s American Band and 2020’s The Unraveling — but returned to Freed’s artwork for their second 2020 album, The New OK. Their latest LP, Welcome 2 Club XIII, released in June, features Freed artwork of a lonely driver on a desolate road.
In his work with Drive-By Truckers, Freed began using an image that would become synonymous with the band: The “Cooley Bird.” The black, long-necked feathered bird — Freed initially conceived it as a black flamingo a decade earlier — first appeared on DBT’s 2003 LP Decoration Day and became known as the “Cooley Bird,” a nod to the band’s guitarist Mike Cooley. (Cooley would go on to have a guitar painted with the bird.)
“People were calling it the Death Bird and the Crowmingo and all sorts of apt things, but for some reason Jill my ex-wife said, ‘No, it’s a Cooley Bird,’” Freed told AL.com in 2019. “And it sounded good, so we said that and it stuck. And it does kind of look like a Cooley Bird.”
Before becoming a visual artist, Freed played in the alt-country band Dirt Ball. In 2019, he published the coffee-table book The Art of Wes Freed – Paints, Posters, Pin-ups and Possums, which assembled some of his best-known works.