Craig Underwood, better known as Craig Legg, grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll in Homewood in the 1960s. More than five decades later, he’s paying tribute to his favorite bands and artists with an art show all about Birmingham’s rock ‘n’ roll history. The multidisciplinary artist is well-known as a spoken word artist in Birmingham, but about 10 years ago, Legg says he got bored of writing and decided to take on a new pursuit—painting. Since then, Legg has been creating and showing his unique style of neo-realistic paintings across the Magic City.
Though he also works in collage and found art, Legg’s Trading Card Series, collections of paintings that document the history of players in all types of mediums from sports to music and the arts, remains one of his most popular. At the end of January, he released his eighth iteration of the series, an art exhibit entitled “The History of Birmingham Rock & Roll.” The collection will be on display at the East Village Arts gallery in downtown East Lake every Saturday until the end of March. It is free and open to the public.
For Legg, the new collection was a way to combine several of his interests into one endeavor. He grew up trading baseball cards, which inspired the initial Trading Card Series, but he’s also extremely interested in art, history, and music.
“In my history and experience in the literary world and the visual art world, I came to the conclusion that I had been as influenced by rock ‘n’ roll as anything else,” he says. “I’m not a musician, but I’ve always worked in venues. So, I’ve come to appreciate the musician on stage playing his trade. I spent 10 years in Austin and learned to appreciate live music out there, too. This is just a way that I can combine a lot of my interests into one thing.”
His newest collection features 323 paintings of various sizes and subject matters, all related to rock ‘n’ roll in Birmingham. Many are 5”x7” paintings of musicians and singers significant to Birmingham’s rock ‘n’ roll history, but just as many are dedicated to the behind-the-scenes people and places that have contributed to making the city’s music scene what it is today. This includes radio stations and DJs, significant record stores and recording studios, concert promoters, and more.
Larger paintings in the series showcase some of Birmingham’s most visited music venues like Legion Field, Boutwell Auditorium, the BJCC, and Oak Mountain Amphitheatre. Two of Legg’s favorite paintings in the collection depict a series of concerts dating to the 1950s called the Shower of Stars. The shows started with country music stars, then eventually incorporated rock ‘n’ roll bands as they became popular in the 1960s, and finally British bands when the British Invasion hit America’s music scene. “For the peak of the series, they brought the Rolling Stones and put them in a battle of the bands with the Beach Boys,” Legg says. “It was just a really iconic and very unique to Birmingham series.”
The collection took Legg a little over a year to complete. He started working on it in 2019 and finished painting in February of 2020. “I went out looking for a gallery and then boom, a couple weeks later, the world shut down,” he remembers. “So, it’s been in my living room for three years.” Legg says it feels great to finally have the work out in the world.
To complete the research for a project of this magnitude, Legg consulted “Magic City Nights: Birmingham’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Years,” a nonfiction book written by UAB professor Andre Millard. The book laid out the chronology of Birmingham’s rock ‘n’ roll roots and provided Legg with a list of the major players he’d need to include. Then, all he had to do was find pictures of each subject, so he could paint them into this collection.
Legg says a major goal of the series is to create a sense of pride for everyone—past, present, and future—who has or will be involved in Birmingham’s rock ‘n’ roll story. “It was such a struggle to get things going here in the beginning,” he says. “So, the pioneers can feel good because they were the pioneers, and the modern people can feel good, too, because they really notched it up. We were clicking on all cylinders before COVID. I expect it to keep going. It’s a good solid history for which people can be proud of.”
“The History of Birmingham Rock & Roll” will be on display at East Village Arts in downtown East Lake through the end of March. Legg is already hard at work on his next Trading Card Series, which will be dedicated to the history of Alabama roots music, from folk and country to blues.