For Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth, Perpetual Motion Is the Only Constant
Sunday at Conundrum Music Hall
Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth | photo courtesy of Fire Records
James Jackson Toth doesn’t hold still for long. As the uncommonly prolific songwriter behind Wooden Wand, he has released a staggering amount of material — all since the turn of the millennium.
The new album Farmer’s Corner matches pastoral folk-rock with ’70s songwriter narratives, like Tim Buckley wandering the back roads, while the 2013 LP Wooden Wand & the World War IV’s sardonic acid-psych owes as much to his beloved Neil Young as it does to riff-heavy stoner-rock. 2006’s Second Attention is a collection of ramshackle Dylan-isms, while 2005’s Harem of the Sundrum & the Witness Figg presents decentralized folk purposefully damaged by digital effects. And these are but a few of Wooden Wand’s myriad transformations.
It makes sense, then, that he’d be running errands around his current home of Lexington, Kentucky, when he picks up the phone for an interview. If there’s a common thread here, it’s that Toth is constantly on the move.
“I can live anywhere as long as I can continue to travel as much as I do,” he says. The current town’s temporary, after all, while wife Leah finishes a doctoral program at the University of Kentucky. Toth’s not wild about Lexington, he admits. The traffic sucks. The music scene is very small. And the overall college-town atmosphere doesn’t appeal to him.
“It doesn’t have the advantages of a cool city, but it doesn’t have the advantages of Nowheresville, Montana,” he says.
What: Wooden Wand
Where: Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St.
When: Sunday, Aug. 31, 8:30 p.m.
With: Stefanie Bannister
More Info: 250-1295,conundrum.us
Still, Toth’s list of places he’d rather live sounds less like a plan for settling down and more like a travel itinerary. He currently has “West Coast fever,” though he had a great time living in Tennessee. He wants to live in a metropolis again, though he simultaneously would like to end up in the middle of nowhere. “The grass is always greener, I guess,” he shrugs.
If he has wanderlust, he’s not necessarily restless. Rather, he’s comfortable in motion. Toth grew up in Staten Island, steeped in heavy metal and hip-hop. He didn’t want to stay, despite his love for the city.
“As soon as I realized there were places with tumbleweeds and s#!t, I couldn’t wait to leave,” he recalls.
Today, he’s still torn between the convenience and stimulus of a big city and the calm of smaller towns. As a touring musician, he doesn’t have to choose; he travels often to get a dose of both. His creative output, too, follows a similar thread. It would be senseless, he thinks, to choose just one musical style — so he doesn’t.
“I’m either cursed or blessed with this sort of festering muse that wakes me up at night or forces me to write things on receipts and text drafts to myself on my phone while I’m driving,” Toth says. What’s hard is finding the time to organize these first lines and snippets into coherent songs. “Until the faucet stops, I guess I’ll keep writing songs.”
“From the outside, looking in, it just seems like he’s a vessel for this thing,” Cory Rayborn says from his office in High Point, North Carolina. Rayborn’s label, Three Lobed Records, has been releasing Wooden Wand material since 2005 — thus far, five records with a sixth on the way in 2015. “He’s an insanely prolific writer,” Rayborn continues. “He could easily crank out an album a week, probably — and none of it’s throwaway.”
Rayborn is baffled, too, by his friend’s standards. What Toth considers sub-par material, others wish they could write, he says. In a perfect world, Rayborn feels, Toth would be on living on Nashville’s outskirts, writing songs for himself — and for others — all day, every day.
“Music, for better or worse, is still the thing that makes me really happy,” Toth concludes.