In a land perhaps unfairly identified with cooking crystal meth and squirrel meat pie, it's refreshing to see a band successfully emerge with good taste (and good vibrations) intact while embracing their heritage.
Ha Ha Tonka is one of those bands. Named after a Missouri state park about 120 miles from West Plains, where three of the four members grew up, Ha Ha Tonka is as Americana as hot dogs and apple pie, only tastier, edgier and easier to digest. And they shake and bake just as well as any of those cable cooking show personalities. If you don't believe it, just ask celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who recently featured the band on his Travel Channel show No Reservations.
On a Monday afternoon in late March outside Bend, Oregon, lead singer and rhythm guitarist Brian Roberts laughs when asked if the group is gearing up for a No Reservations marathon. "I guess," he offers hesitantly, not completely sure what to expect from the group's brief but memorable appearance that was scheduled to debut in a matter of hours. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we don't embarrass our families."
Roberts and his band of blood brothers -- Lucas Long, Lennon Bone and Brett Anderson -- had no reason to worry about the final cut from a December shoot taped in their familiar Ozarks countryside setting with the TV host/travel guide/best-selling author.
While Bourdain might have been out of his sophisticated or exotic element, he fit right in with group while shooting guns, drinking beers and feasting on pork chops, bacon-wrapped venison and T-bone steaks. (At right, Bourdain, middle, poses with Ha Ha Tonka: from left, Long, Anderson, Bone and Roberts.)
"We're all big fans," Roberts says of the show, their appearance arranged by band manager Frank Hill. "It was a really big deal. He and his crew were as sweet as could be. They said they never had a musical performance on, like, an actual show... so it was very flattering."
For anyone who hasn't discovered Ha Ha Tonka, it's time to sample what Bourdain and Missouri Ozarks inhabitants already enjoy.
Choosing an unusual band name that the folks back home could appreciate, Ha Ha Tonka proudly show their roots to the rest of the world. Representing their region, they hope to present a positive image and sound that reverberates throughout the hills and valleys and beyond.
With Death of a Decade, they may just do that.
Their third album (Bloodshot Records), released on April 5, is a fortifying rock 'n' roots concoction. Enriched by exceptional four-part harmonies, it also features Anderson's spirited mandolin and guitar playing, Long's thumping bass, Bone's thunderous drum fills and the powerful soprano of Roberts, whose boy-next-door-makes-good appeal is an added attraction.
From the opening chords and playful mandolin in the rip-roaring "Usual Suspects," Death of a Decade immediately connects.
Roberts was raised by bluegrass and country-loving parents who attended the Church of Christ, a "fundamentalist environment" that didn't allow instruments during its services. Indirectly, Roberts reveals over the phone, that gospel background found its way into the band and into glorious songs such as "Westward Bound," "Hide It Well" "Jesusita" and "No Great Harm." While bass player Long fittingly sings the bass parts ("Luke has a great baritone, natural voice," Roberts says), the others often trade off between alto and tenor, depending on the nature of the songs.
They often perform the traditional "Hangman" a cappella at the midway point of their live show, and Roberts states, "It's usually a lot of people's favorite moment...," then adding with a self-deprecating touch, "probably just because it's quiet and they can talk to their friends out in the audience."
As modest as they might appear, Ha Ha Tonka have a raucous side, too. Past comparisons to established alt-country artists such as Old 97's, Drive-By Truckers and indie darlings Kings of Leon are gratifying, and Roberts says, "we will take those and run with them... It doesn't make sense to try to distance yourselves from any comparison because if somebody listens to us and they think that we sound like Old 97's (Ha Ha Tonka toured briefly with them two years ago), then you can't convince them otherwise.
"If we could write a song as good as 'Timebomb,' I would be happy. "
It's an uplifting move from these deep thinkers who have addressed violence, prejudice and the pervasive drug culture that also serves as a backdrop for West Plains homey Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, the bleak novel that morphed into an Oscar-nominated film. Yet Death of a Decade's title cut does provide a heavy message in the guise of a dynamic rabble-rouser.
Its sweeping chorus brings to mind Big Country, a Scottish power pop quartet that made guitars sound like bagpipes and gained fame in the Eighties before frontman Stuart Adamson committed suicide in 2001.
As a boy who missed the birth of the MTV Generation because cable had yet to arrive in his parents' home, Roberts knew little of Big Country's work but later came to appreciate their hit song, "In a Big Country" enough to record it with Ha Ha Tonka. "I don't know if we did it justice. We kinda put a little different spin on it," he says humbly of their rendition inspired by Anderson and Bone and originally intended for a Rolling Rock commercial that never was released. (Check out a clip from their performance below.)
Roberts, sounding like an emotive Michael Stipe leading the proceedings, snaps us back to reality in "Death of a Decade" with its remorseful conclusion:
I was just about to change
Man, I've gotta change my ways
"With that particular tune, we wanted to explore the idea that each generation experiences a traumatic cultural loss of a popular figure, whether they be a political figure (JFK, RFK, MLK) or pop icon (Elvis, Lennon, Michael Jackson) or other," Roberts explains in a subsequent email. "Conceptually, we attempted to delve into the notion that we project ourselves onto these people, often hastening their own demise or even outright causing it (through assassination, etc). As is often the case, we don't like what we see when we see ourselves in these individuals, but can never look away."
From left, Lucas Long, Brett Anderson, Brian Roberts, Lennon Bone
Don't be frightened by this tale from the dark side, though. These Missouri native sons, who collectively share songwriting credits on this 11-song collection recorded in a 200-year-old barn in New Paltz N.Y. with Titus Andronicus producer Kevin McMahon, also know how to satisfy your basic instincts.
The opposite sex is handled with care (and clever wordplay) in "Usual Suspects," about a group of guys competing for Daddy's little girl, who likes her baddest apples rotten; and in "Problem Solver," the album's rowdiest cut, Roberts reaches down to a guttural Eddie Vedder level while bemoaning the fact that "I know enough to know I don't know myself yet, but she's so confident, so sure of it, she said she's got it all figured out."
Personally, the band doesn't suffer from such social insecurity. After getting married, Roberts moved to Goleta, California, while his wife Martha works on her Ph.D. at UC-Santa Barbara. Boon is also married, while Anderson and Long are involved in committed relationships.
Trials may visit our trail,
but we're so stubborn we know we can't fail
we are westward bound
-- Ha Ha Tonka on "Westward Bound"
Sometimes, it's just the boys in the band on the bus. Or in their case, an eight-passenger van that's "not the best-smelling environment for ladies," Roberts says.
Rolling through the West on tour after experiencing another in a series of successful South By Southwest stints, Ha Ha Tonka engage in harmless activities such as Twitter Trivia.
"Oh, no," Roberts says, laughing after getting busted for "Stump Cheesy B," a social interaction game they play with their Twitter followers while killing time on the road. (See some sample tweets at right.) "I don't know if that's our best side."
On that particular day, Roberts (aka "Cheesy B") gets stumped by the Twitterverse during a series of 10 baseball questions. An ex-Little Leaguer and red-blooded Cardinals fan who picked up a baseball before a guitar, Roberts is proud to share his name with the veteran Baltimore Orioles second baseman, saying "I'd like to trade bank accounts with him." Days after a crushing defeat, the baseball fan keeps replaying his costly error -- an incorrect trivia answer.
• Question: When was the last time the Cleveland Indians won the World Series?
• Reply: 1954.
Mighty Cheesy has struck out. The correct answer is 1948, and this contest isn't even as close as the final score (7-3) indicates. Just like they say in Chi-town about their lovable Cubs, there's always next year.
Sure they're good sports, but thankfully Roberts and his band play music a lot better than baseball trivia.
He often fares better in American and world history, also refreshing to hear from a guy who grew up listening to everything from Alabama and George Strait to Paul Simon and Creedence Clearwater. Then, like many musically-inclined, testosterone-pumped young males, he thought it would be cool to start a band. With his college buddies at Missouri State University in Springfield, Roberts decided to "play parties and have a good time" while "trying to sound like R.E.M."
That scene included Long, 30, who has known Roberts, 31, since they were 6 or 7; Bone, 29, a former member of the Crossmen Drum and Bugle Corps and keyboard player who met them both at Fairview Elementary and West Plains High School after moving from northern Arkansas; and Anderson, 28, lead vocalist on Roberts' favorite album cut -- "Dead Man's Hand" -- who hails from Kansas City and joined up in college.
They've been together ever since.
"I think that it was great that we knew each other before we were in the band," Roberts says, pleased that the just-enough-cooks-in-the-kitchen process rarely is shaken by any needless drama. From choosing the band name (Roberts wishes he could bury all references to their original handle) to how a song is written, decisions are made based on a variety of opinions, not arguments, he adds.
"Luke Long's family and friends are maybe more emblematic of the kinds of relationships you see down here. A close family, friends who've known each other since school are making a name for themselves."
- Anthony Bourdain on the Ozarks episode of No Reservations
During the program that premiered last week (check here for additional airings), the culinary king gave thumbs up to the Ozarks and its people for providing "a recipe for a good time."
Serving up a satisfying mix of team players, delicious hooks and sonic blasts as their main ingredients, the same can be said of Ha Ha Tonka and Death of a Decade. There's only one way to order it: Well done.
Credits: Group photo with Anthony Bourdain and publicity photo courtesy of Ha Ha Tonka and Bloodshot Records.
Follow Ha Ha Tonka on Twitter.
Near the end of this video, see Ha Ha Tonka performing "In a Big Country":
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas