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Going Outside The Everything With James Jackson Toth

We get in-depth with the weirdo singer-songwriter about one very specific song.
January 9, 2013, 6:35pm

“I'm crazy for you.” -Madonna

“Crazy for you, turned out to be crazy in general, too.” -James Jackson Toth

See what he did there? He one-upped Madonna. That's the kind of guy James Jackson Toth is. He's also the kind of guy who makes music that'll make you wanna get whiskey-bent and hell-bound. I dare you to listen to Born Bad or Hard Knox, both released under the moniker Wooden Wand, and try to remain sober and heavenward, because you will fail. Blood Oaths Of The New Blues, the new Wooden Wand album out this week on Fire Records, is no different. I listened to it yesterday afternoon, and ended up totally wasted.

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One of the best tracks on the album is “Outsiders Blues,” a tune about a hetero couple that hits the road after the lady, Christie, finally sells a painting. Their destination? The Outsiders Blues Festival in Toronto. Speaking on the phone from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, I talked to Toth about “Outsiders Blues.” And hope.

NOISEY: The story begins with Christie finally selling a painting. Why'd it take her so long to do that?

James Jackson Toth:

She's not very good. And he's not very good at what he does, either. They're both not good at what they do, maybe. You know, if an artist doesn't work for the weekend, maybe they live for the weekend. We've been waiting forever for her to sell a painting.

The money received for the painting allows him and Christie to take a road trip, and they go to the Outsiders Blues Fest in Toronto. That's not a real thing, right?
Right. It doesn't exist, but I wish it did. I imagine people like Jandek and Loren Connors―these sorta outsider weirdos―playing their version of alien blues there. It's certainly not Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Stevie Ray Vaughan kinda stuff. The people playing the blues here are outsiders, and I imagine the fans are, too. The money from the painting goes to the gas, because I'm assuming that wherever they're starting the trip from, Toronto's pretty far from it.

Where do they start from? Do you know?
Ummmm, I'd like to think it's somewhere in the Southeast. If it was Ontario, it wouldn't be a very long drive. They should be crossing the border at some point. Dammit. I should've put that in the song.

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Then the characters listen to Sticky Fingers in the car. Is that your favorite Stones album?
No, I wouldn't say it's my favorite. I kinda alternate. If I'm being a contrarian, I'll say I'm really into Some Girls and Tattoo You, when they start getting a little disco in their blood. I also love Beggars Banquet and Their Satanic Majesties Request. I actually love all the Stones records at this point. I even like Voodoo Lounge. I find something of value in all of them. But I do love Sticky Fingers. I know that album really well.

The reason he put on Sticky Fingers is because Christie doesn't want to hear Mississippi Fred McDowell, because she thinks they will hear enough blues over the weekend at the Outsiders Blues Fest. But once he turns on Sticky Fingers, he skips over “You Gotta Move,” and Christie asks why he does that, and he kinda fucks with her when he responds, because she doesn't realize that “You Gotta Move” is a Fred McDowell tune.
That's a joke that maybe only record people get. Being one of those record people myself, I thought I'd include that. You clearly get it, so I feel like I've accomplished something.

It's kind of a dick move, the way he fucks with her.
Well, he's not very nice.

Poor Christie, man. She's finally selling paintings and funding this trip, and then she gets fucked with a bit in the car. It's not really hurtful, though, I guess.
Well, she doesn't really wanna go to this festival. She's just looking for a weekend away. It could've been a baseball card convention or a comics fair―she just wants to spend some time with her dude, ya know? It's just a weekend trip.

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Then the dude mentions the impossibility of seeing his own heart, but then he gets distracted by the fact that he can see other places he'd like to go, but then he realizes he'll never go to those places because he has other places he already has to go to.
Right. That heart thing just occurred to me one day. It's very literal. People are always talking about their hearts being damaged, either figuratively or literally. Like, all the cholesterol is gonna fuck up your heart. And then people talk about heartbreak, when someone breaks their heart. But we never see that sort of damage actually happening because we can't see our hearts, so maybe it makes that type of damage easier to inflict.

The other part you refer to is that I remember being a kid riding in the car with my parents, and I'd fixate on maybe a leaf from a tree, or a branch, on the side of the highway, and I'd blow my own mind by thinking that, even if I lived to be 5 million years old, I'd never gaze on that branch or leaf ever again. I'd wonder where those little places on the highway might lead. Where would that trail take you? Nobody has the time to figure it out.

Man, that's a pretty heavy anxiety for a kid to have.
Oh, I'm full of anxieties like this.

Is there a particular place you'd really like to go to, but know you'll absolutely never go to that place?
There are millions of them. Life's pretty short. People could spend their whole lives living in Helsinki, which is a beautiful place. I might spend a whole lifetime not playing music. What would that be like? I was a big fan of those choose-you-own-adventure books as a kid. I think those made an impression on me about how one small decision can lead to so many bigger things. I understand the Howard Hughes thing with staying inside because of that. It's such a delicate, precarious balance. If you get too caught up thinking about that kinda stuff, you can just become a shut in. “If I don't go to the post office before 1 p.m., then my mother's gonna die.” That sorta thing. Those things do occur to me.

That's really intense.
Yeah.

Okay, so for a hot second in the song, the character stops thinking about his problems and plants a flag in the ground, and maybe considers settling down. But it doesn't seem to me like that could ever happen for these characters.
I think you're right. I think it's a “grass is always greener” thing. But that's one part of the song I relate to in my own life. In the past, I'd always say “Oh, it'd be nice to not tour for a year and just be some place.” But then when I'm home for too long, I want to go somewhere else. That “American Dream” of having a place of your own, and a manicured lawn, is kind of an illusion, you know?

I do. And then there's that great moment when Christie keeps bumping him with her hip while she's dancing, and he temporarily feels safe. But at the same time, he doesn't trust his own feeling of safety. That also gives me the impression that there's no settling down for this guy.
He can't ever be satisfied. But maybe he should be, you know? I mean, Christie's pretty cool despite her bad art.

Elliott Sharp practices Outsider Music Journalism and is on Twitter - @elliottsharp