One of the many promising young bands in roots rock, Missouri natives Ha Ha Tonka really take the “roots” part of their equation seriously. The mild-mannered band of longtime friends, named after a local state park, revel in the authenticity of their twangy sound while updating it for a young audience with diverse tastes in music.
And they’ve begun to get noticed for it, too. The Washington Post remarks that the band would have been a better choice to play at this year’s Grammy Awards show than Mumford & Sons, who received a sizable jump in notoriety after their performance with Bob Dylan. The newspaper praises Ha Ha Tonka’s marriage of “lilting country harmonies (think Carter Family) and the muscular Midwestern swing of John Mellencamp” before conceding that the Grammy crowd “probably doesn’t deserve Ha Ha Tonka,” anyway, and that maybe we should just keep them a secret.
The band would prefer if their secret got out, though, and with their new album, Death of a Decade, they’re prepared to do the job. Along with such critical praise, they’ve been featured on a popular Travel Channel show and are currently performing on a long, country-wide tour. Frontman Brian Roberts recently talked with CMT.com by phone to introduce his band to the country audience.
CMT: For people who aren’t familiar with it, how would you describe Ha Ha Tonka’s music?
Roberts: It sounds like O Brother Where Art Thou meets indie rock. … Like Alabama meets Arcade Fire.
What’s it like being a band on a smaller label?
I think that there are advantages. We are signed to Bloodshot records, which isn’t a major label by any stretch of the word, but I think that it can be an advantage in building a longer career. With a smaller label, they usually put a little more time into developing an act. Like, this is our third record … and we’re not gonna sell a million copies, but we’re gonna sell enough to get by on. And everybody makes a little bit, so we’ll keep building and going on down the road.
What was it like growing up in Missouri?
Well, three [out of four] of us grew up in the same hometown, West Plains, Mo. … I think Missouri is a great place to grow up. You’ve got the best of the Midwest and you also have the Southern flavor, especially down in the Ozarks on the Arkansas border. I grew up on a big hog farm, and I think it was a pretty good childhood. I guess it’s the only one I’m ever gonna have, so …
You and your hometown were featured on the Travel Channel’s No Reservations recently. What was that like?
It was a blast. [Anthony Bourdain, the show's host] really was a nice guy and had a great crew. The filming was right before Christmas in West Plains, and it was over at [bassist] Luke’s parents’ house — they’ve got a nice log cabin. Basically, it started at 10 in the morning. [Tony] came over, shot guns, drank a little bit, played cards, went out driving a couple of trucks, came back, shot some more guns. He grilled out for us, and then we just played some tunes that night. I mean it was like 10 o’clock in the morning till 10 o’clock at night just hanging out with Anthony Bourdain.
That show’s known for showing off regional food from all over the world, so what did you guys have?
I made some venison cutlets wrapped in bacon and then some Kobe steaks, potatoes, corn bread. It was just a nice spread.
Do you think Tony’s a fan?
He said he liked what we played, and it felt like he wasn’t just being polite. But he also had a couple of drinks down him at that point, so who knows?
Were you guys exposed to country music at a young age?
Oh, of course. You name any country song from 1987 through 1994, and I think I can sing at least two or three verses and the chorus or bridge. That’s kind of the heyday of country music for me. I love George Strait, Garth Brooks, Sammy Kershaw. I think that was just a really cool era for country music, and that’s right when I was getting into music. I mean, needless to say, Alabama’s been a constant for us.
Your band is clearly not contemporary country, though, so growing up like that and being so influenced by country music, how does it show up in your style?
It’s just we can’t not sound like that. If we tried to play a rock song, or even if we were covering someone else’s song, it would still come through ever-so-slightly with that Ozarkian sound. I think it’s on par with the Appalachian sound. Any band, if you come from a certain geographical region, it’s almost imprinted on you. You can’t not sound like that. So I count it as a blessing and an advantage that we come from there. It’s a little bit different, a little bit off the beaten path. I think that it comes across in our music.
I heard that you recorded the new album, Death of a Decade, in a barn. Is that true?
That’s true. … We recorded our first album in a church, and we thought the next logical step would be a barn.
Was there anything special that the barn did for the recording?
Yeah, I think it added an atmosphere and ambience to the recordings. And, you know, it’s a 200-year-old gigantic barn that we lived in for two weeks. We were secluded. I mean, there wasn’t any Internet out there. Cell phones didn’t work, so it was just a neat experience. It was in the summer, there was a big heat wave and no air conditioning in the barn, so you can almost hear the grittiness and the creaks and the sounds of the barn. It sounds like a symphony, hopefully.