Ha Ha Tonka – Ozark Highs and Lows
Ha Ha Tonka State Park, which rests near the center of the Ozark Mountains, is a sprawling testament to how awe-inspiring highland natural phenomena can be. Culturally, the Ozarks’ scattered population shares many traditions with the Appalachian region: rugged individualism, deep and sometimes exotic manifestations of faith, and an influential heritage of music.
Ha Ha Tonka — the band — grew up in the heart of the Ozarks, somewhat south of the park near the Arkansas border, around the hamlet of West Plains, Missouri. Brian Roberts, the band’s lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, cites his song “St. Nick On The Fourth In A Fervor”, from Ha Ha Tonka’s new Bloodshot Records disc Buckle In The Bible Belt, as encapsulating his central sentiment about the region. Its chorus turns on an aphorism: “This glimpse of brilliance is better than a long look at mediocrity.”
“There’s all these kind of rosy, shiny memories from me and Luke’s childhood,” Roberts says, referring to bassist Luke Long, “of trips we would take every summer to the river or to the lake. I think that’s what I’m touching on [with] ‘this glimpse of brilliance’ — a connection to your youth. You can take that with you.”
“Falling In” and “Cureall”, too, name-check comforts of home, but they tell only part of the story. Roberts is all too aware of the mediocrity, even the shame and occasional horror, that lurk alongside the brilliance.
“As much good [as] happens here,” Roberts explains, “there’s a bunch of bad, negative stuff…like there’s a lot of meth use. It’s a really terrible plague in the Ozarks. In a rural, Christian conservative America, you wouldn’t necessarily think that that would exist, and it almost fosters it because maybe…[you] try to live up to that idea, and you fall short, so you just completely give up.”
The band’s songs “Gusto” and especially “Up Nights” speak to that dilemma. Both hint at the perils of infant life in the hands of a methamphetamine addict. “Up Nights” is relentlessly charged and pulsating, underscored with intense piano damage by keyboardist Brett Anderson. “You’ve been up nights all month long,” the lyrics go; “take another look what you did when you took it all out on him.” “Gusto” centers on the death of a little one whose mother had been too strung out even to name him.
Elsewhere, the health care system is the focus of “This Is Not A Cure For The Common Cold”, and religious abuses get their due in “Bully In The Pulpit”. The latter features the most southerly metal influence in the collection but also highlights the band’s unique vocal harmonies, which derive from Roberts’ upbringing in the Church of Christ. The denomination bans musical instruments from worship, but Roberts cites its rich, a cappella harmony tradition as the genesis of his musical career.
That tradition surfaces frequently in the band’s music, especially an a cappella treatment of the traditional “Hangman”, in which Long’s deep bass voice takes center stage. On “Caney Mountain”, a single harmonic flourish dramatizes the band’s scenery-studded contribution to the Ozark and Appalachian murder-ballad tradition. Driven by the breathless, pounding heartbeat of Lennon Bones’ drums, the lyrics scramble over the psyche of a murderous preacher trapped in the futility of escaping a “crusading mob.”
Roberts once hankered to go off and see the world. He learned German, and interned for the U.S. Consulate in Berlin. He was there, in fact, on September 11, and was deeply moved by the outpouring of condolence books, flowers, gifts and cards that were left “literally all around the block.”
A future in foreign service may yet await him, but right now he’s happy to live the dream. “I think [it’s] a lot of people’s dream,” he says. “Go out and be in a band with three of your best friends, make music and meet a lot of different folks.” And it’s not as if they’re really leaving the Ozarks behind.