James Jackson Toth plays taut, haunted music with folk roots and a darkness all its own. Most of his work has been released under the name Wooden Wand; most recently, his album Briarwood got the deluxe reissue treatment from Fire Records. And it turns out that the guy’s a prodigious reader, able to smartly discuss musical histories and work from Barry Hannah and William Gass in equal measure.
In a piece for Magnet earlier this year, you recommended Daniel Beaumont’s Preaching the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House. What are some of your other favorite books about music?
Oh, man, so many. That Beaumont book is crucial, as is the Stephen Galt book on Skip James. Blair Jackson’s Garcia biography is terrific, one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for oral history-style books, so although I haven’t read them in years, Please Kill Me, We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb, American Hardcore, etc were always catnip for me. I’m currently in the middle of reading Conversations by William Parker, which is outstanding – just a collection of interviews conducted over the past few years by the bassist and various musicians, artists, and dancers. Illuminating, affirming, inspiring. Highest recommendation on that.
What led to the reissue of Briarwood?
We felt that the record didn’t get the attention we felt it deserved for a variety of ‘perfect storm’ factors – a late release date, crowd-funding siphoning off the diehards, an inept PR company, etc. It’s a credit to the label that they thought enough of the record to give it a second life. Not a lot of labels would do that.
How has reading about music and the lives of musicians informed your own songwriting?
Again, it’s affirming. Everyone seems to go through a lot of the same trials and tribulations, and almost everyone whose music I respect and admire generally speaks the same way about the muse. Whether it’s Neil Young or Milford Graves, you inevitably read about their lack of choice in the matter. I firmly believe that if art isn’t a biological imperative in your life – something you do whether you want to or not – you shouldn’t be doing it. If I could do something else, I would. It’s not an easy way to make a living. But it’s what I’m on Earth to do. So when I read that Alice Coltrane says generally the same thing, it makes me realize that it’s merely a matter of survival.
How did the Haunting the Stagecoach book and record project come about?
It wasn’t really a book – Mike from PIAPTK just used old condensed Reader’s Digest covers to make a really stunning looking limited release. But I had nothing to do with it. I just sent him four songs. That was his concept and his hard work entirely. I don’t know when that guy sleeps.
Does writing as Wooden Wand change anything for you relative to the songs that have come out as James Jackson Toth?
WW has long been a name I put on my records because at this point, for better or worse, it’s a brand. I don’t really write ‘in character’ or anything like that, though I do writes scores of songs that are not appropriate for WW albums, and those generally sit in the archives.
What are you reading right now?
My favorite question! I’m always reading four or five books at a time. I just finished the posthumous Barry Hannah collection – there’s some new (to me) stuff in there, and it was great to re-read Airships after all these years. Exemplary short story writing – no one this side of Raymond Carver is better at it. That William Parker book (see above) has been on my nightstand, as well as a book of Dorothy Parker stories (after devouring her poetry). I have a William Vollmann reader that I’ve been reading bits of on tour – it’s great to read in spurts because Vollmann was capable of dealing with so many different things so fluently, so it suits any mood. He’s like ten great writers in one. I’m about to start In The Heart Of the Heart of the Country by William Gass, on my wife’s recommendation. Hmmm, what else…you got anything for me? I take recommendations seriously.
Photo: Leah Hutchinson Toth