In several ways, Jeremy Fetzer’s album cover designs fly in the face of most others out there, and he sidesteps a typecast signature style. Every cover is different, but they do follow a certain thread of minimalism — the stark black & white contrast of Jason Isbel’s The Nashville Sound, the classy retro 60s folkie simplicity look of Gillian Welch’s The Lost Songs, and (my favorite) the 70s funky groove of Pam Tillis surrounding by bright red tile and lounging in a bathtub with a glass of wine while cramming an Oreo in her mouth (I know. Ick, right?) on Looking for a Feeling. These designs and more have not only given him a livelihood but they’ve served as siphon for his expression-jonesing in much the same way his musical pursuits have.
“I have no design background or education; I just have picked it up and made it up as I go.” So says well-rounded Renaissance dude, Jeremy Fetzer, a man like so many who have moved to Nashville with a guitar in a hand and fell backwards into a career. He still plays guitar in Steelism and before that, with Dualtone Artists The Deep Vibrations, and has no intention of giving the music up so he can spend all damn day in front of a gigantic Mac monitor cropping things and double-clicking on the palette tray. But Fetzer has plied his design trade for a menagerie of artists including Boz Scaggs, Delbert McClinton, Bobby Rush, Justin Townes Earle, Lucinda Williams … pause for breath … lots of other folks too.
With that aforementioned minimalism usually front and center, the last thing you’re going to accuse Jeremy Fetzer’s album cover work of is being too busy. “I feel like what I figured out is writing and guitar and design all need about three great ingredients that go together, and then your finding the perfect placement for them. Whether it’s a song, a melody line, or a record cover, or a martini, or a margherita pizza, you just have the perfect three ingredients and make them work together. [That’s] been my philosophy and trick, for all of my artistic pursuits.”
In a sense, “artistic” is almost a too pretentious notion for what he’s doing with his covers. He’s not beating you over the head with a dazzling use of color and theme, or bizarre Dali-esque imagery, or Pollack splats, or anything radical for the sake of being radical. Don’t expect Hipgnosis-style covers of two businessmen shaking hands while one of them is on fire, or naked children climbing up a stony mountain. Fetzer doesn’t carry truck in mind-fucks.
His designs are reminiscent of a time and age when photos of the artists actually appeared on the covers, hearkening back to lost eras of cover aesthetics, like old jazz records, old gospel records. “For me,” he says, “it’s making the photography and those feelings work together. And usually, like I said, you just need two or three really good components for the cover. I’m always trying to do as little as possible, just to make it work. I guess I like to keep it clean. It could be my OCD tendencies, but also, that’s how so many great [covers were designed], from Blue Note to Bob Dylan [and] I guess the early Beatles covers, before the drugs kicked in.”
“I have no design background or education; I just have picked it up and made it up as I go.”
His work can’t be put in a box. Just take a look at a the album artwork he so kindly provided us. He designs the cover that the music hollers out for. On the cover of Ashley Monroe’s Rose Gold, the warmly toned, almost snapshot-like photo could be a Lynn Anderson shot from 1972. The shot of Ashley in the midst of some tall grass and flowers is so reminiscent of that time long past, that you forget for a moment that Ashley’s hair is pink.
Then on to Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, and it couldn’t be more different — a wood-block printing of a cowboy with his horse and his dog looking like something that would be printed on the frontispiece of a turn of the century wild west novel.
Then another left turn and we have the great Boz Scaggs. The cover of Out of the Blues is a throwback in style back to the great Blue Note record covers and others like them, such as Kind of Blue or Duke Ellington & John Coltrane Live in Concert.
Take a trip to his website (or your record collection), where Fetzer gives us minimalism with hair on it: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Reunions — a cover consisting of a far-away shot of a long stretch of grassland horizon taking up the bottom inch of the image, the entire rest of the backdrop above the grassland nothing but slate gray sky, with the title of the record nestled in the top of it, and in the right bottom corner atop the grass horizon is one tiny man, a man who could be Jason Isbell, or could be a guy named Eddie. We’ll never know.
A 34-year-old, bookish and amiable sort, Fetzer made his pilgrimage from his homeland of Canton, Ohio to our fair city to study at Belmont. The guitar he carried with him belied his real reason for coming. He hit the ground running with the guitar too, and gained some traction, flirting with some good labels and playing come good gigs.
“I’ve always had bands, and I got into design initially just to do it for my own musical projects, to keep costs down, and then I started to have friends asking me to do design for them. My wife had a little bit of design background, so she helped me out enough that I could figure out the technical side when I was just getting started, and she would occasionally help and collaborate.”
One aspect of the pandemic is it appears to have killed road work and boosted creativity at the same time. And Fetzer has benefited. “I almost feel guilty because the pandemic didn’t really affect design. I think when touring shut down people needed to create more content and release more records than ever. So my design workload went up, which was strange, because vinyl sold more than ever in 2020, so it’s like I had no music work, it was just all design work, which was an interesting thing.”
Other services falling under Fetzer’s umbrella of expertise include book designs, brochures, logos, about any graphic you might like that you can’t get from a tattoo parlor. “Sometimes I think about how this design thing has happened for me, like I still feel I have imposter syndrome with it,” Fetzer muses. “It’s not something I planned for, but I keep trying to find the similarity between design and music and guitar, and I feel like what I figured out is writing and guitar and design all need [those] three