When Americana Highways caught up with Jerry Joseph, he was on tour in Key West walking along the street to Starbucks for his morning coffee. “Key West has a couple more rainbow flags than the rest of Florida, I guess it’s kind of like a hipper Myrtle Beach,” he remarked. He had never been there before, even after years of extensive travel. He and the band had driven down the night before, he said, “There’s a lot of boat stores and fast food.”
If you’re new to Jerry Joseph’s story, pull up a seat and get comfortable, this isn’t your run of the mill Americana tale, and if you’re already a fan, you’ll find a new layer or two to appreciate. His new album is Full Metal Burqa (Cavity Search Records), and the name itself already tells you a lot about both the man and his music. The first song on the album, “Power Out,” is nearly 11 minutes long and was written in the Dominican Republic after his plane made an emergency landing. Joseph has a nonprofit in the works to keep something going that he’s already done a few times: bringing instruments into war zone areas, into refugee camps, and places like Iraq and Afghanistan where, he points out, learning to play an instrument is life altering, and something no one can ever take away from you.
He’s still working on the name for the organization. But before we focus on that, he needs to navigate in the world to get his coffee so we talk about lighter topics. Like birthdays, travel, and the passage of time.
“I’ve come to this weird age, I am 57 now. I used to always feel like I wanted to live places and stay awhile when I traveled, and always felt like I’d return to them. But recently I’ve realized I may never see some of those places again. Places in the U.S. where that may not matter as much, but it’s like, seeing people from Nepal I’m still connected to on Facebook, and remembering how, when I left there, I was excited and thought I’d definitely be back. But 10 years have passed and lately it’s dawned on me: I may not actually be back.”
“I’ve always been insanely jealous of those people who can just keep traveling. That’s one thing about these guitar workshops in the refugee camps, though, you have to, well, you get to stay there for some time.”
“I noticed there was something about turning 57 that bothered me. My Dad was the youngest of 13, and when I was a kid, my uncles would have been in their mid 50s, and they were like old men. I mean: old men! They were retired! But I like to hold on to what Bonnie Raitt talks about when she first started playing with Muddy Waters and all those Chicago blues guys, they were in their late 50’s, and she says: ‘These guys were men. They were in their physical, artistic, sexual prime.’ I always remember her saying that, they weren’t like the wimpy beautiful guitar boys in their 20s she’d been hanging out with.”
“And having a 5-year old probably makes me feel differently than I might have otherwise. Artistically I feel like I am just getting started. I have ten records right off the top of my head that I want to make right now. I never got rich off of it, but I have a lot I want to do. I guess its weird to think about what “age” is.“
“My friend Patterson Hood, the guy from the Drive-By-Truckers, produced a Bettye LaVette album, I see she’s out there in her 70s with a whole new career move. [for more on Bettye LaVette, click one of these bolded words.] I have worked with Patterson, and we hang out, he lives in Portland, Oregon now, near where I live; there are a bunch of southern guys up in Portland now. We are lunch buddies. He also has little kids, like I do. We come home from tour and we’re exhausted but we have to keep moving with our kids, so … we have lunch. Having little kids keep us engaged in things you wouldn’t normally stay engaged in.”
Going into Starbucks, Joseph orders his coffee — venti iced coffee, black — and he jokes: “You know, especially in the airport, if you ever hear that I’m in prison, it’ll be because I was in the airport behind the guy who was ordering 6 caramel mochas and 20 fluffy lattes. When I have a flight,” he laughs.
“Where were we?” he asks. “What’s a role for music in social change?” I ask him. I’m thinking about his work on the nonprofit when I pose this. Joseph wants to clarify the deep level at which he’s willing to remain open-minded, right from the start. He says, “I have a lot of opinions about that. As far as the songwriting goes, I tend to not write super political songs, because I am really political. One thing I’ve learned about politics is that things are gray. And as crazy to the left that I am, most situations are gray.”
“I mean if you’re Zach f-cking de la Rocha and you’re 26 it’s black and white, if you’re Bob Marley you’re coming out of Trenchtown, and literally pistol whipping djs to play your music and suddenly you are rastafari, it’s pretty black and white.“
“But I think about environmentalism. My father was a renowned fisheries conservation scientist and he set the tuna catch quotas for most of the world. Recently the star of the show Wicked Tuna saw me in the street, he remembered me because of my dad. He taught me a long time ago that there’s a human aspect to both sides of an issue. These “headwaters” people would sit up after my show and tell me they were going to go shut down this old growth mill, and stop them from cutting redwoods. I’d say, “Are you going to go down there in your tie dye and tell this guy he’s out of a job? You have to respect these guys…” and this gets twisted into saying “Jerry’s for cutting down redwoods.” Which I am not! But you’ve got to respect the people who are losing their jobs, even when you’re protecting the environment.”
“I have blogs, and I wrote a big one about racism. Me and my band got held up on a gang initiation night a few years back, an African American guy robbed my drummer and people were shooting people. This gun comes up in my face and I turned around and said “are you going to shoot me, you dumb *#&^. “ And I mean, I have black children, I have black grandchildren. I would be the most non-racist person in the world! But at that point, when I really believed he was pulling the trigger, and the cops believed he was pulling the trigger, hateful things came out of my mouth!!! So I wrote about that. That is the issue that I’m concerned about. I have been all over the world, all this stuff, my non-racist cred is as good as anybody’s. But when scared and thinking I am gonna die, and the two guys who were holding us up ended up shooting each other and one guy died, fighting over the money they got from my drummer, this is what I say? The cop looked at me afterward and said “What are you some kind of dumbf*ck? Yelling at a f*cking guy with a loaded gun in your face? That saved your life.” I’m interested in writing about that kind of deeper stuff.”
“And yet, in Iraq I was going on television about the program where we brought 25 guitars into the refugee camps there, and the producer of the show says: “Let’s talk about cultural imperialism.”” The question was presented, as a preview, as to whether what Joseph was doing was an act of cultural imperialism. Joseph said, “I love faith, I love that part of humanity, and my favorite part about humans is that moment they are offering themselves up to god. But I also understand that that fundamentalist Iraqi man would let his daughter die before he’d let a male doctor see her naked! So when there is a choice? If I can bring guitars to these girls and teach them there’s a way to express art, or I can ignore it and then what? If there’s a choice, I’m going with cultural imperialism and fuck fundamentalism.” The guy looked at me and said “are you going to say that on tv?” And I said “Yeah, if you ask me the question.” He said: “Then I need to clear the building.”” (laughs)
(Click here to donate to the nonprofit, but then come back to read the rest of the conversation.)
“Coming back to the idea of music having an impact, as for songwriting, to me I can’t fit all that stuff in a song. And I’m not talking about genital mutilation with two translators to a 15 year-old girl in the Iraqi music school either. So for me, the way to make change is to affect the thinking behind what goes into learning to play a guitar. It wouldn’t have to be a guitar either, it could be anything – clay, or watercolors, or dance shoes, or anything, because once you think differently they can’t take that away from you. They can take the guitar, they can take the dance shoes, but they can’t take the creative thinking. That’s what it’s about more than anything. I’m getting ready to make this a bigger nonprofit, and people are like “what is this other than that Jerry Joseph wants to go cool places?” But the thing I’m bringing to the table is: I’ll come here personally, where no Americans are gonna come, and I’m gonna sit with you and I’m gonna play with you and show you how to play an E chord. I would like to do this. If I have a choice between kicking around Key West, and teaching a kid how to play Megadeth chords in Kabul? I’m going for Kabul.”
“As people we forget to stay in a gray area sometimes. In the 80s I spent a bunch of time in Nicaragua, I met Danny Ortega, with my Dad. Now he’s in his 20th year as president. But see, things change. Ortega may have seemed like he’d represent a good thing then, but things change.” Things are gray.
“So of course I think music has an impact, I could talk about this for hours. Like people talk about who the next Jimi Hendrix is going to be, musicians have this conversation all the time. “Who’s the 23 year old next Jimi Hendrix?” People will say “It’s Derek Trucks” and I’m always like “I like Derek, but who’s the next kid to change the world? That kid is in Bangalore or Sau Paulo, or Llagos. You never heard of them yet. It’s a big awesome world, and in one of those places, music really could change things. For the most part, I definitely think with music it’s going to be coming from somewhere else.”’
And then he considers how compartmentalized we can be, especially here in America, so that it’s a challenge to get any message heard, through songs. “That dj that died the other day in Oman – Avicci — he killed himself, and I had never even heard his music. I didn’t know who he was. We get so compartmentalized with music that we don’t even know what’s going on. I mean, there are people like Beyonce who can say things that are important, but I think a lot of those messages just go unheard to anybody outside my circle.“
“I am open to gray areas. For example I’ve gotten so anti gun, but I went out the other day and learned how to use an AR-15 so I could at least learn what I’m talking about. It’s like we’re not curious. And that can be scary with art too, when we stop being curious. I don’t know exactly where art affects that change and I don’t know exactly how you go about affecting it. But you have to stay open to it.”
“So, I will say that in my own little way, I think, if I take guitars to these places and if it changes one kid? One kid! Because for the amount of money it takes me to ship 25 guitars into a refugee camp in Iraq, I could rent a couple backhoes and a 20 man crew and put in a pool. They’d probably rather go swimming. But one kid, to change one kid, is that worth 40 grand? Yeah it is. Yeah it is.”
“As a songwriter, Patterson Hood nails it — you have to listen to his last record. He’s very good at characters. But I only write from the point of view of characters once in awhile. In “The Ten Killer Fairies” I’ve taken the point of view of a woman who was executed with her entire family. This really happened to my brother’s neighbors in Mexico; they were skimming money off people in the drug cartel and the drug cartel came in and shot all 23 of them. They knew they were coming and tried to hide kids under floorboards and in closets. It was horrific. So I wrote that song.”
“I also wrote “By the Time Your Rocket Gets to Mars,” when I was in Afghanistan. Mainly, I have tended to write from my own wants, about things I am interested in, songwriting from the heart. Everybody writes about when you first meet the girl, or the horrible divorce, but nobody writes about ten years into it when you have this amazing life that you’ve created even though its gotten kind of routine, you know.”
“But, now that I think about it, I should probably write a strictly political record.”
What’s coming up for Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons? “We’re going to keep doing the same shit we always do. (laughs) We chase our mortgages around the country. We’ve got some dates in Europe in June, but I’ll be working on the nonprofit while still touring. It’s not named yet.” Also, Joseph has two records just came out: Weird Blood and Full Metal Burqa (Cavity Search Records). “if you have seen those burqas that women wear in Afghanistan, you’ll know how appropriate that name is. Your eyes are completely covered by a screen. I want the nonprofit to bring instruments into combat zones, and we’re going to Iraq again this year.” Check back in as Joseph’s nonprofit continues to grow, and donate, here:
Buy Jerry Joseph’s music here, we promise you’ll be moved: http://www.jerryjoseph.com/