On the Verge: Ha Ha Tonka

Maggie Ambrose, Ha Ha Tonka
Hidden deep within the Ozarks there has been a skillfully kept secret, one that’s made its way into popular culture only in recent years. The secret is its long, large history of folk and Americana music, to which popular genres today owe a lot of their inspiration. Rarely does an audience see those who are still a part of this ongoing tradition that makes up so much of the culture of this part of the United States.

Then comes Ha Ha Tonka, a four-man band formed in West Plains, Missouri, who bring their home-grown values and experience to an ever-changing music scene. Named after Missouri’s State Park with the same name, the band consists of lead singer Brian Roberts, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Brett Anderson, bassist/vocalist Lucas Long, and drummer/vocalist Lennon Bone. The band was fresh, youthful, and kind while assembling their acoustic set-up for their segment. The first song they performed was “Lessons,” the title track of their latest album, which they just released this year. In the studio, the song was stripped down to acoustic bones, but still retained the grittiness that lies beneath. “I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again / I keep learning the same lessons over again,” the band chants over a throbbing bass line. There is an urgency that permeates the track, but by the ending, a feeling of optimism is reached, aided by the combination of the voices of all four members coming together.

Though lead singer Brian Roberts does not describe their new album Lessons as a concept piece, he emphasizes that it is still very much tied together by a common theme. The central idea of their newest release was sparked by an interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak on NPR’s Fresh Air program, which was broadcast in late 2011, just a few months before the writer’s death. Roberts happened to be listening in at the time, and was struck by Sendak’s words. “He really seemed to live in the moment,” Roberts shared on air, “It’s enviable.”

This explains the juxtaposition of darkness and light within each Ha Ha Tonka song, including “Colorful Kids,” another track from Lessons and the second song the Missourians played for WERS. With the low, pulsing bass guitar switched out for a plucky mandolin, the tempo picked up and the mood lifted.

When describing the record on the whole, Roberts elaborates, “[The album is] not a really retrospective one, but it’s still optimistic about the future, living life to its fullest, and really enjoying the moment, while also knowing that you can improve yourself.” A mighty undertaking – especially difficult to convey when only allowed two songs to do so. However both “Lessons” and “Colorful Kids” still contrasted each other musically while maintaining the thread of vitality present throughout the album.

“I think that our goal as a band and as instrumentalists has been to improve,” says Roberts.  “We are always trying new things… So hopefully it sounds bigger and better. I mean somebody might like the first record better, but we like to think we’re moving forward.”

By Madelyn Reese
Photo By Maggie Ambrose

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