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Part Two

Hillbilly Soul


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-1](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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