Chosen One: Wooden Wand
Interview with James Jackson Toth, Wooden Wand.
“The songs are the oaths, contemporary life is the blues. And so we pledge to report hopefully with honour, our findings within the void.”
—James Jackson Toth
‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’ is the title of the latest Wooden Wand record, recently released on Fire Records. At the heart of Wooden Wand is the prolific, awe-inspiring singer-songwriter, James Jackson Toth. This album holds huge significance; marking a culmination in Toth’s shape-shifting body of work. ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’ is a stunning tour de force in life’s good and evil; hardships and struggle; love and hope; redemption and despair. The album’s eight songs possess the power and antidote therein to fill a void’s vast emptiness and provide illumination and inspiration thereafter.
What is striking about the latest incarnation of Wooden Wand is the stellar musicianship on display. In the words of Toth, about recording ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’: “I was just a member of the band”. A truly collaborative process ensued in the recording studio of Ol Elegante in Homewood, AL. I can imagine the cast of musicians creating their art through sound, akin to The Band and Dylan in the Big Pink House in West Saugherties, New York. Sparks of magic radiates from the studio space and into the slipstream of the human space. The musical telepathy between Toth and his bandmates comes as natural as the air you breathe. One feels the songs effortlessly pouring from Toth, like falling rain or a burning sun.
The Wooden Wand band is: David Hickox, Janet Elizabeth Simpson, Jody Nelson, Brad Davis and Les Nuby. It’s the same cast who appeared prominently on last year’s Wooden Wand record, ‘Briarwood’, which was also recorded in the same Alabama studio. Toth has described ‘Briarwood’ as “Saturday night revelry” whereas ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’ is “Sunday morning’s wake and bake”. I’d like to think of ‘Briarwood’ as ‘The Basement Tapes’, an album of timeless rock ‘n’ roll steeped in the depth of soul. The new record is somewhere near ‘Blood On The Tracks’-adventurous and deeply personal. The songs on ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’ soon become a part of you and its deep impact is something to truly behold.
Album opener ‘No Bed For Beatle Wand/Days This Long’ is a sprawling spiritual opus. The song is wrenched in soul. The atmospheric guitars, organ and drums guide you along a river of drifting emotion. Take the first verse, the first words sung by Toth that immerses you in deep: “Nothing’s for certain but I know a girl who’s perfectly worth waiting for”. The lyrics are words of longing, direct from the heart’s pulsing melodies that share the raw dimensions of Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’. The music and words alike, are fragile, raw and beautiful. The organ and keys provide a cluster of sparks to allow Toth’s lyrics to swim out to distant shores. A crescendo of brooding guitars rise beneath Toth’s affecting lyrics, “In dreams you can’t dream but when you’re awakened/The vault of the sky opens to you.” This soulful ballad is just that, an awakening. A sense of rejuvenation and cosmic spirit remains alight throughout ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’. An achingly beautiful country folk gem of ‘Days This Long’ fades in, encompassing life’s philosophies and human condition. It’s the expansive feel and quality that exudes such incredible force, where “the river’s wider than a thousand skies.”
‘Outsider Blues’ is one of those songs that make the world’s axis fall on its head. A tower of song. A songwriter’s song. ‘Outsider Blues’ mixes the mundane with the philosophical. The song centres on a couple, two fictional characters, who go on a road trip to the Outsider Blues festival in Toronto. The instrumentation is immaculate and divine. The hand percussion, slow strum of acoustic guitar and magical tones creates the perfect score to Toth’s achingly beautiful ballad. Soon, the immense emotional depth seeps from the songwriter’s world:
“I might have felt like I was saved then
But I know what I feel’s just one version of real
If there’s one thing that cannot be taught
The song breathes hope and transforms the ordinary to profound meaning. Lyrically I am reminded of the short stories by Raymond Carver, whose spare dramas of loneliness and despair, effortlessly capture the power in the mundane. Similarly, Toth conjures up a world of raw emotion here that hits you like waves crashing in on the shore. I feel the spirit of ‘Desolation Row’ by Bob Dylan. The lyrics are coming in waves to the artist, alone at a typewriter. In the words of Toth: “The world forms the song, I just write them down.” The song closes with the arrival of hope: “After the darkness there is light.”
“It will be you who must answer for your mistakes” is a lyric to a verse on ‘Dungeon Of Irons’ that evokes the landscape of ‘Nebraska’ by Bruce Springsteen and spirit of Johnny Cash. The song deals with the innocent and the guilty; death and life. The guitar line is reminiscent of Link Wray. The electric guitar tones blend gorgeously with the female vocal harmonies and delicate accordion. A torchlight ballad. ‘Supermoon (The Sounding Line)’ is harrowing. The alt. country ballad sees the protagonist seeking to drown himself: “My heart and I decide to drown.” The female backing vocals accompanying Toth’s is akin to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. A ballad wrapped in beauty. The sadness in this powerful ballad is overwhelming to me. ‘Supermoon’ is one of the many defining moments scattered throughout this remarkable record. “No one will ever find my sounding line” are the last words uttered, as I feel a lost life slowly fall onto the riverbed.
‘South Colorado Song’ is the life-affirming sound of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The dark, brooding opus transcends space and time. For me, the musical telepathy between Toth and his Birmingham crew is brimming to life on this take. Interestingly, Toth brought ‘South Colorado Song’ to the band in the form of a folk song. The result is a rock opus drenched in tears of rage. The song is based on real life events of the Dougherty Gang, in a Canyon City wallmart. The chorus of “Life goes by so fast/But it’s the minutes drag on slow/Sometimes nowhere seems the only place to go” exudes a fallen world that is long-lost and forgotten. An underlying current of despair and search of redemption therein is wonderfully embedded in the song’s tapestry:
“If you ever think of me and wonder
Ask yourself where I might be
Keep your eyes fixed on the shadow,
You’ll find me”
Accordion, soft brass, infectious bassline, percussion and mesmerising harmonies, float like forgotten dreams, on the sublime ‘Jhonn Balance’. A torch-lit horizon is now upon us. Toth sings “I may go on just dreaming forever-let it be known” before a refrain of “nobody’s home” serves the song’s close. Album closer ‘No Debts’ is an achingly beautiful sparse lament. Just Toth and his acoustic guitar. The lyrics, as ever, is sheer poetry. I am reminded of the ballads by Steve Earle and Richmond Fontaine. The refrain of “smooth sailing now” reflects for me, Toth’s life in music right now. The album feels like a culmination. Toth’s Wooden Wand are “born new”-let it be known.
“I’m dropping anchor
You drop a pin
Our ship has finally come in
We’ll plant a flag on this ground”
“Could it be that I was being deceived? Not likely. I don’t think that I had enough imagination to be deceived; had no false hope, either. I’d come from a long ways off and started from a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else.”
—Bob Dylan, “Chronicles”
James Jackson Toth Interview.
Congratulations James on the new Wooden Wand record, ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’. It’s a stunning tour de force in life’s good and evil; hardships and struggle, love and hope; redemption and despair. The music is country, psych, folk, blues all at once. You must feel very proud of this one.
Thank you! Quite honestly it didn’t feel quite so definitive going in. I love recording – my second favourite thing to do after writing. I went in with the intention to create another limb or organ in my body of work, but I agree it turned out pretty special. Feels like a culmination.
Please discuss the recording process for ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’, where you retreated back to Alabama?
Well, on Briarwood, the band and I were still getting to know each other. We made a great record, but I feel like with few exceptions, they were following my lead. On Blood Oaths, it truly was collaborative, the result of this particular, singular community of people. I just brought the demos – the band made the album. I was just a member of that band. That hasn’t always been true for WW records.
I’d love to know about your song-writing, in terms of narrative and song, which forms the song?
The world forms the songs, I just write them down! Without getting too metaphysical, I’m just a transcriber and translator. I hear titles, first lines, and chord progressions, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my job on Earth is to communicate them. I don’t know why I have this thing – call it a gift or curse if you like – but the older I get the more I believe it’s a mutation. Maybe a hypersensitivity. It can get in the way of having a real life, which is why there is so much insanity, poverty, early death, etc, in the artistic life, historically speaking. The muse can be crippling. It’s very selfish, possessive.
Please give me an insight please on the album title? It’s a title that fits the music so perfectly as you listen to each song, each one is a journey, with truly poetic storytelling.
The term ‘blues’ here is symbolic of the feeling, rather than the musical form, though I worship the deities Son House, Skip James, et al – that’s my classical music. But ‘blues’ in the title is about the state of mind of having the blues, and the sacrifices one makes in service of, or in attempts to escape, those blues. The songs are the oaths, contemporary life is the blues. And so we pledge to report, hopefully with honour, our findings within the void.
I recently had the great pleasure to talk with your friend and colleague, William Tyler. When he explained about making music he said music making for him is closer to Terrence Malick whereas yours is like that of Michael Fassbender! It rings true for your work, considering the amazing ‘Briarwood’ record was released just last year. Discuss please the song-writing process for you and how do you become so prolific, as you have been for the last decade and more?
William is a dear friend and a constant inspiration. We just recorded some more music together actually. The songwriting process isn’t really a process for me at all, but a thing that sorta occurs. I’m prolific only because I need to write nine bad ones to get one good one. I also enjoy writing, so I do it as often as I can.
My favourite song on the new record is ‘Outsider Blues’. It’s such a beautiful, affecting ballad. I feel the song shares the spirit of Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’. It exudes that feel and emotion for me. The lyrics are sheer poetry–“I’ve never seen my own heart/We never see our own hearts.” My favourite is “If there is one thing that cannot be taught it’s belief”. The song centres on the Outsider Blues Fest. Can you recount writing this song please? At what moment was the song given its wings?
Thanks! I don’t recall the exact inspiration for or genesis of the song, but I wanted to write a road song without the trappings and cliches common to that particular trope. I invented a festival and put two people on the road to it, mostly to see what would happen. I liked mixing the mundane with the philosophical, because my experience with traveling is something like that. Tedium one minute, existential woe the next. Ha ha ha.
You mention putting on ‘Sticky Fingers’ by The Rolling Stones on the road to Outsider Blues on the opening verse. Is this a favourite Stones album for you? (Doesn’t ‘Moonlight Mile’ close that album?—what a closer!)
I love Sticky Fingers – but my favorite Stones record is Tattoo You. It’s just…sexy. But I’m glad that first verse resonates with you, because I worried for a bit that the entire first verse is a nerdy in-joke that only record collector types would get. I hope people identify with the humor of that very familiar sort of situation.
The Crazy Horse-esque ‘Southern Colorado Song’ is breathtaking; where this dark, brooding feel is building wonderfully throughout. “Sometimes nowhere is the only place to go” is a lyric of lyrics. Can you please tell me about the narrative to this song?
It’s based on real life events. I followed pretty closely the news story of the Dougherty Gang here in the States and wanted to write a sort of non-judgmental piece from what I imagined to be their perspective. I took a few liberties (the sprinkler, the Wal Mart shooting, etc) but most of the song is accurate. A part of me identifies with the Doughertys, the part of me that still feels like a teenage metalhead or something – the American outsider, the circumstantial misfit. I tried not to condone or condemn, but get into the headspace of that sort of person. I like to leave the judging to the listener. As for the Crazy Horse stuff, that’s all the band – I brought that song to them as a sort of folk song! I’m happy with how it turned out. It sorta churns.
The amazing musicianship is so evidently clear on ‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’. This same band have been prominent too on ‘Briarwood’. There is this musical telepathy I hear within the songs themselves. Do you feel now more part of a band than ever before, perhaps?
I do, but only in the sense that I know I can rely on these individuals to not only help me realize the vision I have for the songs but also to interpret the songs anew. I enjoy working with different people from time to time so things don’t get stale – also, some people are better suited for certain songs than others. But the Birmingham crew are a band I plan to work with as long as they’ll have me. They’re terrific.
‘No Debts’ is a beautiful, sparse lament. I am taken to timeless Steve Earle when I listen to this song. “Smooth sailing now” seems to reflect your life in music right now? You have arrived at (yet another) career peak on this new record.
Wow, thanks man. That’s extremely kind. That song is about something quite specific, but because so many people (including the members of the band!) have interpreted those lyrics so many different ways, I think it’s more fun to leave it open and ambiguous. There are a lot of theories, and none of them are ‘wrong.’ I may have intended one meaning when I wrote it, but the subconscious is always at work. I thought it was pretty free of ambiguity – a pretty straightforward love song / fantasy – but maybe there’s more to it than that after all.
Over your career you have been at the heart of an array of inspiring projects and collaborations, all of which are genre defying. Eclectic I guess is the word. Does the fact you have travelled a lot in the past inspire and filter into your music?
Travelling can be inspiring but I can’t say it’s affected the way I write any more than my voracious appetite for music, or just trying to pay attention to the world around me (which I have to work at). I think it’s important to keep your ears open, keep your antenna up, and remain an open channel. Listen to strange and foreign (to you) music, listen to people – there are songs everywhere. You just gotta catch ’em like butterflies and try to give them a good home.
Where did your musical education first begin?
My dad was always buying and playing records – and was pretty eclectic. He was way into Sabbath and Ozzy, but he kept up with pop hits, too, so we had Blondie, Pet Shop Boys and Sade records as well. The soundtrack to my childhood is all of these, plus Fleetwood Mac, CSN, Beatles, etc. The usual suspects. My cousin was also in a pretty popular heavy metal band, so that sorta showed me that it was possible for me to make a life of music, too.
Tom Waits said this, which I think resonates true for many of the great artists, and you being one: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things”. Do you have favourite lyrics or quotes you hold onto?
Well, many, of course. Lately, a lot of the lyrics on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira are resonating with me in a way that they hadn’t previously – I mean, I have loved that record for a long time, but lately, it’s been the lyrics that have captured my attention. I love the Tim Bracy songs on The Mendoza Line’s Lost in Revelry album – that’s one of the most underrated bands / albums I can think of. Dylan, Leonard, etc, of course. Too many to name.
Thank you for the very thoughtful questions and kind words. This was a pleasure.
‘Blood Oaths Of The New Blues’ by Wooden Wand is out now on Fire Records.