That the group uses that as their current moniker (Amsterband was the original) testifies to how smitten they are with connecting their lively Americana rock to their state and, in turn, the American South. “Growing up in the town of West Plains, Mo.,—right on the Arkansas/Missouri border—still has a Southern feel to it. When you write about the Ozarks, it’s influenced by Southern culture,” says Brian Roberts, guitarist and lead vocalist for the Springfield, Mo.,-bred quartet.
2007’s Buckle in the Bible Belt, Ha Ha Tonka’s inaugural full-length, was their first foray into rummaging through local folk history. The rollicking “Caney Mountain” throws you right into the story of an alleged murderer attempting to outrun a mob. The unruly group hopes to finish him with a cross they fished out of the water in Hodgson Mill. (Presumably, the item hung around the murder victim’s neck). The track both begins and ends with Roberts’ twangy warble asking if the fugitive can climb the titular peak found in Gainesville, Mo., and escape. Though there is no resolution to the narrative, “Caney Mountain” is an excellent example of how Tonka pulls you into a place dotted with local color and allows you to wander freely, even as metaphors grow tangled and difficult to digest.
Sophomore release Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South expands the band’s geographical reach while still expounding on the past. “Pendergast Machine” covers a Kansas City mob kingpin gaining power through violence in the Great Depression, while “The Horse in Motion” sees Union General William Sherman and his men proudly ravaging Athens, Georgia, during the Civil War.
Even when stripped of American figures or minutiae, Tonka’s work remains potent and smart: Self-righteous fundamentalism runs amok in “The Outpouring,” and “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart” explores “the death of hope.”
In a similar way to those lyrics, Tonka’s earthy aesthetic also draws upon Southern culture. The band’s early blueprint merged Ozarks bluegrass with the alt- and indie-rock Roberts grew up on.
“Early on, we were trying to write songs by our favorite bands. We wanted to try to write something like Radiohead or R.E.M,” he says. “You start out trying to imitate people and eventually stumble onto your own sound.”
After recording Buckle in an aged church (a control booth sitting in place of the pulpit) and Novel Sounds in a studio, the group’s upcoming third album (which will ideally see release in March 2011) will be a product of an old barn in upstate New York. With two thorough explorations of the South behind them, Roberts hopes to champion personal stories over the historical on this next work which, as he explains with a laugh, entails “a little bit more ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘you’ in the lyrics, as opposed to ‘William Sherman.’”
Despite that, old creative impulses don’t die that easily: one of the latest compositions Tonka is assembling involves Mark Twain, perhaps Roberts’ “favorite author of all time,” and a man born in Missouri.
Though Roberts speaks enthusiastically of all those decades he spent in Missouri (he now resides in Santa Barbara, Calif.,), he doesn’t want Ha Ha Tonka to represent a singular vision of the South.
“It’s a complex picture. I found the dichotomy that exists between the horrific past in the South and its enormous hospitality so interesting,” says Roberts. “Hopefully, whatever we painted reflects that.”
HA HA TONKA
w/ Small Town Sinners, Guides & Braves
741 S. 330 West
Thursday Aug. 26, 7 p.m.