Jerry Joseph Talks Straddling Genres and Teaching in Afghanistan

Jerry Joseph
Jerry Joseph Jason Thrasher
Jerry Joseph penned lyrics to his 2020 album The Beautiful Madness at his brother’s house in El Sauzal, a barrio north of Ensenada in Baja California. What he describes as a “low intensity war” between established drug cartels and young upstarts who manufacture fentanyl and methamphetamine was unfolding in the distance. Joseph kept a pistol with him while he wrote, at his brother’s insistence.

He references the scene in the album’s opening track, “Days of Heaven.”

“That’s why the first line of the song 'Days of Heaven' is ‘Back down on this porch singing to myself with my brother’s .45,’" he says. “I literally had to write all that with a gun on the table because shit was going off around me. … I’ve written lots of records down there. It’s kind of a crazy place.”

He covers a lot of thematic ground with his dense lyrics on The Beautiful Madness. He also wrote in South Africa and at a friend’s house in Sonoma County, California. By the time he ventured into Drive-By Truckers co-founder Patterson Hood’s Mississippi studio, he’d written 35 songs. Ten made the final cut.

Globe-hopping to write isn’t unusual for Joseph, who recently toured Europe and is now embarking on a quick solo tour with a stop in Denver before returning to Europe next year to open for the Drive-By Truckers, who serve as the backing band on The Beautiful Madness. Prior to the pandemic, one might have found him playing at a refugee camp in Syria or teaching at an underground rock school in Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of his nonprofit Nomad Music Foundation.

“It started with a fatwa, a death threat against aid workers,” he says of his foundation, which teaches music to refugee children. “I’ve been in some war zones. I travel a lot. So I was asked if I could come and take over this underground music program. I raised a bunch of money and got a bunch of gear and got it into Afghanistan, which was a shit show to do.”

He adds that the downside to the program — and he’s troubled at the thought of putting anyone in danger — is it’s not a great look for an Afghan kid to have a photo with an American musician or a selfie in front of the American embassy, as far as the Taliban is concerned. When the United States withdrew its military presence from the country earlier this year, Joseph tried to help some Afghan children, mostly girls, escape the country as the Taliban retook control.

"The most I could do was put people together," he says. "That's probably the extent of my success, putting the right people together. But I think I put the right people together and a lot of the girls got out."

His work in Afghanistan led to time at a refugee camp along the border of Syria and Iraq to teach music to kids who had fled the terrorist group ISIS. For children who had escaped what basically amounted to slavery, having something else to focus on was a welcome distraction.

“It might give them something to do for five hours instead of talking about the genocide of their culture,” he says. “You know, watch the American bang his head and try to get them to go ‘Yo, Yo, Yo’ like Bob Marley. Some of it’s just an entertainment factor, for sure.”

He says he’s planned on doing the same kind of work in Somalia and Bangladesh, but the pandemic put the kibosh on traveling to those countries. He suspects some of those places haven’t even suffered through the first wave of the disease and will likely be among the last places to get a vaccine for it.

“What a global shit show,” Joseph observes. “It’s like we all sit here. We have little children and we have conversations like, ‘Santa can’t get you the electronics you're asking for.’ It seems pretty moot compared to what some other people are going through.”

Politics took over Joseph's writing process for his album, which he says began with him wanting to wax philosophical about marriage and write about it differently than the usual love songs.

“Everyone writes about when you first meet the person,” he says. “'She’s a fucking jaguar. She’s my spirit animal.' Then ten years later they’re writing about the same person, and they're like, ‘The witch cut my heart out.’ Nobody writes about the middle part, which is where I’m at in my life. That’s a fascinating part of a relationship.”

Joseph says that once the time to write lyrics comes around, the words tend to pour out of him quickly; he often writes entire songs in less than an hour. He was excited to work with Drive-By Truckers on The Beautiful Madness, he says. Former member Jason Isbell even returned briefly to play on the song “Dead Confederates,” and the backing band was dubbed the Stiff Boys. The pandemic interfered with touring the new material, however, and his massive European tour was canceled twice.

“I kind of had to mentally shelf it for quite a while,” Joseph says. “I knew after the pandemic that this would be at the forefront of what I was doing, so I didn’t want to burn out on it.”

Joseph was able to play Europe for six weeks this year; he's also played the new songs in a handful of odd locations as he returns to the stage. He’s happy that audiences seem to be enjoying the new music.

“These were small venues, 100 seats or less, but everyone sitting there knew every goddamned word to the songs,” he says.

At his Denver show at Globe Music Hall on Wednesday, December 15, he'll be backed up by “local gunslinger” Eric Martinez, who is also a member of Joseph's band the Jack Mormons. As a stripped-down, acoustic performance, Joseph says, it will likely differ from the overdriven intensity of the record.

“It will be a little hard to do ‘Sugar Smacks’” he says. “It’s hard for me to manifest all that rage and run around in the crowd and scream when I have an acoustic guitar strapped to me.”

Joseph has recorded a ton of music since the early ’80s — he aims for a record a year — as a solo artist and with the Jack Mormons. He jokes that he was dismayed that a Boulder-based band he was in, Little Women, was left out of a coffee table book about Colorado music. His music has been labeled as Americana, though Joseph says he's “not really sure what that fucking means.” Hood, who produced The Beautiful Madness, says Joseph is a punk rocker to the core. Joseph is most often associated with the jam band scene; Widespread Panic has recorded his songs, and he formed a band with its members called Stockholm Syndrome. He’s never fully understood the association with the jam scene, even though he's played and recorded in it for years.

“I’ve always been too dark and way too heavy for [the jam scene],” he says. “They aren’t dying to get me on some cruise or bluegrass festival. … I’ve always walked this weird netherworld in the middle. It’s been a weird position.”

He’s only played the new songs live with Drive-By Truckers at the band’s homecoming shows in Atlanta just before the pandemic struck, but he says some kind of a United States tour is a possibility. The Beautiful Madness has been well received in Europe, which has come as a bit of a surprise: Joseph jokes that he’s played Berlin 35 times for six people and London thirty times for seven people. That seems to be changing.

“The main demographic is 50- to 75-year-old men,” he says. “I’d walk on stage to those kind of crowds. Man, they were into it. They knew all the words. They cried during the sad parts and laughed at the funny parts. It was remarkable.”

Jerry Joseph, 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 15, Globe Hall, 4483 Logan Street; tickets are $20. For more information, visit
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