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Americana Finds Its Dire Side

Wooden Wand taps into the dark, cryptic, desolate-cornfield aspect of American music.
Wooden Wand taps into the dark, cryptic, desolate-cornfield aspect of American music.

It's easy for a band to sound "rootsy" by simply unplugging the instruments and singing in a manner that's folksy and earnest. It's a little harder to tap into the dark, cryptic, desolate-cornfield aspect of American music, but Wooden Wand's "Delia" does just that. "Delia brings death on a special blue plate / Buzzard says, 'No thanks — I already ate,'" sings James Toth, who records under the name Wooden Wand.

It's never quite clear who "Delia" is, nor precisely what Toth means when he warns, "Let me clean up this mess 'fore the sun rips the sky." But from the music, something bad is obviously coming. The stringed instruments flutter like birds fleeing a vicious hurricane, a bass guitar rumbles ominously, and Toth sings like a preacher who's giving a particularly dire sermon but trying not to freak out the congregation.

In this era, bands often aren't so much bands as "collectives": loosely knit assemblages of musicians that change lineups from record to record. Toth has made a number of records under the Wooden Wand moniker, and his latest, James and the Quiet, will be his last before he begins recording under his own name. Both the song and the album serve as fitting finales for Wooden Wand's mysterious history. On "Delia" — an original composition with no connection to any of the Delia-related songs by Johnny Cash, Rev. Gary Davis and others — Toth brings to mind a more listenable Billy Corgan or an even more austere T-Bone Burnett. But he's also his own man — one who makes veiled references to a "virus mask" that may or may not protect the public from the dread to come.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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David Browne
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets.