I still remember the moment music began to make sense to me. I had heard it all my life in commercials, on cartoons and movies, and on radio. It seemed like something that masked silence. Then I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and it was a revelation.
My life has taken a very winding path. I've been a preacher, a serviceman and now an artist and songwriter... but music has always been an integral part of my life through all of it's phases. I was very fortunate to grow up in a time when people still bought physical albums in the form of CDs, cassettes and records. The album artwork was most definitely part of the appeal. In Alabama public schools, we didn't have any art classes, but every trip to the record store was like visiting a gallery.
These are some of my favorite album covers.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
I reckon this kind of goes without saying, but I found this record cover in a peach crate full of my dad's records when I was 12 years old or so. I was just getting turned onto rock n roll, and falling in love with the Beatles. I vividly recollect laying back in front of my stereo and staring at this cover, trying to make out exactly who these people were. Through squinted eyes, I scoured it for hidden symbolism and meaning, trying to understand what it was about this art that was so compelling. By the time "A Day in the Life," the album's concluding track, started playing, I was in the middle of a near religious experience. In the crescendo of the final moments, as the orchestral accompaniment was raging into chaos, I knew that I would never be the same. Art was so much more powerful than I ever knew it could be.
By 17 or so, nothing could speak to me the way that disillusioned punk rock could. I found this record at the local record store. I heard of the Germs because Pat Smear went on to play with Nirvana, who like all the disillusioned youth of my generation, I had become obsessed. There is power in the minimal. It has to be done right... and it ain't easy to pull off... but when done right, it can become iconic. It's simple, off centered, plain, and moving... much like the music on this record. When I got this record, I had to hide it from my parents. It was dangerous. Now I can't really get deeply into this kind of stuff anymore, but I will still put it on and listen all the way through on occasion... but this cover art still resonates with me.
Agony is Alright: Live in the U.K. (2021)
This is a painting I made based on an idea that struck me in the basement of an Airbnb in Bristol. I was in the middle of a six week European tour, and I was miserably homesick. I had three days off, so I holed up in this rented room. I pulled the curtains to the only window in the room, and cut the lights. Night and days ran together. I agonized in solitude. I realized that art that I had created out of previous agony was what had led me to that basement in Bristol, agonizing yet again. So I made this about it. It was alright.
An Untamed Sense of Control (2003)
I was 21 or so when I first went to Washington D.C. I was largely unfamiliar with folk and blues music. I went into the Smithsonian. I bought this CD based on the cover art alone, and I sure am glad I did. I was already playing 3-finger style bluegrass banjo by this point, but Roscoe Holcomb wasn't playing that. He was playing the banjo with rhythmic ferocity. It was brutal. I stared at his face on the album. He looked solemn, and with the deep crevices lining his hard expression, I knew this was serious. I tried to play like him... in fact, I am still trying to play like him. There is something in this type of music though that just cannot be reproduced... a complete abandonment into the song, that I ain't sure could ever be accomplished by those of us buying CDs at a museum in D.C.
Little Creatures (1985)
This is not an album I grew up with. I started painting as a young preacher, leaving the ministry in 2007. I had no idea how to paint. I didn't really choose it. I had to paint... as a matter of expression and as a way to reconcile myself to some type of peace during the darkest days of my life. I painted for ten years, never showing my work to anyone outside my family. Then in 2017, my music career began to gain some footing. I got a small record deal. The label hired a manger and publicist. The manager and publicist came over to my house to talk over the new album release. My wife only allowed me to hang one of my paintings in my house back in those days. She feared that my work would frighten folks. As my new manager and publicist were leaving, they stopped and looked at the lone piece I had displayed, having no idea it was one of mine. They both raved about the work and asked who made it. I said, I did. They asked if I had more. I bought out 50 or so paintings. They said I reminded them of Howard Finster. I had never heard of Howard Finster. Turns out, Finster was an Alabama-born, baptist preacher who became an artist. I have fallen in love with his work since then.
Are You Experienced? (1967)
This record cover is just a stunning masterpiece in terms of composition. The vivid and bold colors... the bubbly font and the trippy photo. I still remember the first time I ever saw that movie from the Monterey Pop Festival 1967. They used to play it late at night on VH1 in the '90s. I caught it by accident as a 13- or 14-year-old kid. When Hendrix performed and then set his guitar ablaze while mounting it like a lover, I was taken in the sheer emotion of it all. It was shocking. I had to get an album. I went and bought this one as soon as I could get back to the record store. I chose this album because it was my favorite cover of all the Hendrix records.
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Cry from the Cross (1971)
I got religion when I was 18. It was the kind of religion that didn't make room for "secular" music. I was supposed to listen to "southern gospel." I detested it. I discovered bluegrass. It changed my life, and made me want to learn to play music myself. Ralph Stanley's banjo pickin' was a huge part of that for me. When I say I may have listened to this record 1,000 times, I ain't exaggerating. It's Keith Whitley singing lead on this one. It's Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, and that timeless, worn Stanley tone that endears me. The cover to this album is haunting in a way it was likely never intended to be. The Clinch Mountain Boys have had quite the history. Lead singers have been murdered, drank themselves to death, went to prison and been victims of horrible accidents. Those men gathered on that hillside, adorned in their fanciest, were living hard, and as a consequence.. they needed God.
The Flying Burrito Brothers
The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)
The NUDIE SUIT... I capitalized every letter on purpose. Well known for having clothed nearly every country and western music icon of the '50s, the Nudie Suit exudes that classic country, Nashville city vibe. They were the prize of country music fame. Well here are four cats in the middle of a wasteland that are wearing these things like they stole them... unkempt fellows with long hair, looking nothing like the cowboy hatted, high and tight folks who had famously donned them before. This record sounded like the cover looked. They took country songs and played them in a loose, sloppy rock n roll way that is beautiful.
This has to be one of the most imaginative designs for an album cover in rock n roll history. The art is wild, and colorful, and can actually be manipulated. It aids in taking the experience of listening to an album to new frontier. You can spin the wheel inside the cover of the album, creating new and interesting visuals, while falling into the sounds of peak Zeppelin. What a concept!
The Louvin Brothers
Satan is Real (1959)
The devil is on the cover... and not just any devil, a really strange looking, cartoony, child-like devil. The Louvin Brothers are in the Lake of Fire, apparently. The font is wild. They have on pink shirts and those ties that are cut flat at the bottom. They are smiling for God's sake. So many things on this record cover just make you exclaim, "What the Hell!?"