"There are two types of songwriters," says Dave Schools, Widespread Panic's benevolent Buddha of the bass. "One type is the kind that flat-out refuses to listen to anything, or claim to like anything, for fear that it'll be used against them later, like they are copping an influence. And there's the other type that just ravenously devours anything they can wrap their ears around. Jerry Joseph falls into the latter category."
Portland-based cult hero Joseph is an intense and often abrasive singer/songwriter/guitarist with an enigmatic, rough-hewn charm and the gallows humor of Elvis Costello coupled with the outspoken political candor of Billy Bragg. "He's like a big, churning vat of everything hip and right-now," says Schools. "He eats it up and then applies his own sense of magic to it and out it comes."
In 2001, I had lunch with Schools and he was wearing a Jerry Joseph "Guns Don't Kill People, God Kills People" T-shirt. Even though we were meeting to discuss The Bellwether Project, the debut album from Schools' side project, Slang, he eagerly talked about producing his old friend Joseph's record.
The record in progress became 2002's Conscious Contact, and like the Slang project, was released by Atlanta's Terminus Records. The project cemented his strong ties to Georgia while boasting an all-star roster of Peach State greats. In addition to Panic's Schools, Mike Houser and Todd Nance, Traffic's Randall Bramblett and the Rolling Stones' Chuck Leavell also contributed. "The thing about Athens is those people are just hangin' around," says Joseph. "You can literally go out on any given night and go, 'Hey, you wanna be on my record tomorrow?' And they are!"
Now, in 2006, Joseph has a lot to talk about: a new album by his band, the Jackmormons, called Into the Lovely; his record label, Cosmo Sex School Records; Widespread Panic's versions of some of his songs for its upcoming album, Earth to America; and a slavishly devoted fan base. The first thing he wants to talk about is his Almost Acoustic Tour with Schools.
"We've talked about doing this for years," Joseph says by crackly cell phone on a day off in Virginia. "One thing we've always had in common is the fact that we both have a huge, esoteric record collection. We can sit around, pull something out and go, 'Let's write a song like this, or let's rip these guys off.' So now here we are, doin' it."
Currently, the old pals are on a four-city tour that ends Saturday night at Smith's Olde Bar. It's the duo's first official tour of the United States under their names. A few years ago, the pair also shared the stage as members and founders of the underground collective Stockholm Syndrome.
"After the Stockholm tour, we wrote about nine or 10 songs together," says Schools. "Two of those got hijacked and are on the new Panic record [to be released this June]. So that's a good leaping-off point for this tour."
"We'll come up with some new stuff for every show to make it exciting, and to make the tapes worth trading around," says Joseph. "We've got this thing together; the conversation of songwriting comes pretty easily for us now."
It's a conversation that flows as easily as Schools' melodic basslines. The two musicians can't recall the exact date they met, but they both agree it was when Joseph's former band, Little Women, was busy touring the Midwest in '86 or '87. "Panic was just starting to expand our territory out west," says Schools. "Jerry saw us in Philly, liked us, and dragged us along to Colorado, which has since developed into one of our homes away from home."
Joseph quickly bonded with Schools and the rest of Panic, including the late guitarist Michael Houser. "One of the first things we did when we started writing songs together was dealing with Mikey's passing," says Schools. "Jerry and Mike were really close. So Jerry had this idea: Wouldn't it be cool, if you knew someone was dying, you could give them a bunch of postcards to take with them to give to friends and family who'd already passed on. So we wrote a song called 'Postcards.' A tender subject, but it was an interesting take on it."
The odd couple -- wiry, bald Joseph, and the gentle, hirsute Schools -- make great bookends. "His songwriting craft is kinda like alchemy," says Schools. "It's literally like watching someone produce something from the air." Joseph quickly waves off the praise, offering his own compliments: "He's the best bass player in the world. Dave has the talent to play with anybody -- and I have very little talent."
After the tour, Joseph says he's planning more tours and a new album -- scheduled to be recorded in Athens, of course -- with Schools at the helm. "So now it's a matter of knockin' on doors and finding somebody to pay for it," he says. "Since we're playing on tax day in Atlanta, maybe somebody will be feeling pretty good about their returns and we'll solve that issue."
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