Painting, music and society
by Laura Nation-Atchison
They’re stunning, and they greet you the moment you walk inside Talladega’s North Street Bar on the downtown square.

Artist Tommy Moorehead is on a new thing, he’s painting nearly life sized portraits of the music greats, and he’s not through.

So far, he’s done Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, the blues lady known as “Odetta,” along with the Bobs-Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.

He has lots of other greats in mind, and no one has been shy about letting him know “who” he ought to do next.

He knows that the “list” is really endless, but he’s an artist on a mission and he’s likely to add quite a few more before his series ends.

It fits right in with the atmosphere of the North Street Bar, where owner Kenny Williamson has made a big effort of combining showcasing great art along with some great “jammin’” to create a totally artsy experience while you meet up with friends. The bar just opened this summer in one of the square’s historic buildings, which adds another flair to the North Street Bar experience.

Moorehead said when he and Williamson were first talking about opening the bar about a year ago, they knew they wanted to incorporate art and music into the setting.

They came up with the thought of “Liberal Heroes,” but dumped the idea because of possible political issues.

So then, they decided to go with “Musical Heroes,” and not just talented people, but people whose music made a mark on society.

“True art-including music-tries to analyze the current society and the political atmosphere of the culture and what so many people did to portray that,” Moorehead said.

Agree with their messages or not, they were heard by millions through music.

He hopes that the portraits inspire intellectual conversation.

And, of course, that they help preserve the messages in the music.

He started with Woody Guthrie, and explains his choice this way.

“He was the real thing, and of the people,” Moorehead said. “He traveled the country singing songs about the working man and the not working man and unions.”

“This Land is Our Land” was Guthrie’s masterpiece, Moorehead said.

“The song was really a question about if it really was our land,” Moorehead said. “And do we have any say so in how it’s used or abused.”

Moorehead calls Guthrie “the father of American folk music.”

Pete Seger was a contemporary of Guthrie, Moorehead said, and naturally, became a part of his portrait pursuits.

“He was really an intellectual,” Moorehead said. “And he turned out to be the Johnny Appleseed of American Folk Music. He took it to the people.”

Because of his politics and views, Seger got “blacklisted” in the 1950s and then had to turn to teaching music to make a living, Moorehead said.

Moorhead did Odetta’s portrait from a photograph he took of her performing at Birmingham’s City Stages about 12 years ago, toward the end of her career.

She has since died, but Moorehead said, “She was the real deal.”

Moorehead said Odetta’s songs were from the heart, from personal experience.

And, that they spoke.

In the furture, Moorehead’s thinking of painting Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and a whole lot more.

He’s documenting in visual art what musicians contributed to society through the decades.

It’s a mission.

And he does it so well.

© 2013