art feature
 May 06, 2011


Missouriís very own Ozark mountain boys
by Melissa Cowan

Ha Ha TonkaBrett Anderson (guitar, keyboard, vocals) of Ha Ha Tonka.

When Ha Ha Tonka’s singer Brian Roberts said his show was going to be “rowdy,” he was right.

The Missouri Ozark band kicked off its April 23 show at the Record Bar with the boot-stompin’ song, “Usual Suspects,” which set the tone for the rest of the night. It also was the first time the band sold out a venue in Kansas City, their current home.

The crowd enthusiastically responded by singing along, clapping and dancing. Patrons batted pink balloons across the room and up onto the stage. Brett Anderson (guitar, keyboard, vocals) wished his mother ‘happy birthday’ and asked the audience to serenade her. And Brian Roberts, lead vocalist and guitarist, encouraged the audience to sing the group vocals featured on “Westward Bound” – and then appeared surprised when they did.

Local Kansas City band, Clay Hughes and the What?, opened the show. This three-piece group (four this night with Madison DeCamp on violin, a beautiful touch) combines an acoustic and bass guitar with turntables to create a unique fusion of alternative country and hip-hop; their stage presence matches their sound: calm, laid-back but also playful, joking with the audience about free lap dances from their bass player, Zach Haddock.

Folk-rock band The Spring Standards, from New York, followed. The Springs Standards utilize each of their talents on stage by playing multiple instruments, including a piece or two from a drum set – and they all sing, creating a full-band sound with just three people, a rarity to find in this genre.

Ha Ha Tonka’s set list for the night was mainly from their latest album, Death of a Decade, released in April. Their performance of “Dead Man’s Hand” was just one of the highlights — a softer, more somber song in which Anderson takes over on lead vocals. While he appears more reserved than Roberts, Anderson carried the song well as the frontman. In the acapella song “Hangman,” from their first album, Buckle in the Bible Belt, all four band members (including Lucas Long, bass/vocals and Lennon Bone, drums/vocals) harmonized in this haunting traditional folk song. Roberts showcased his strong, soulful voice, backed by his perfect-pitched band members.

The Spring Standards joined them on stage for their last song and they finished the night with loud, raucous bluegrass.

Ha Ha TonkaBrian Roberts (lead vocals, guitar) and Brett Anderson of Ha Ha Tonka.

Ha Ha Tonka, good ole’ country boys from Missouri, have been selling out shows all over the country. But that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten their Ozark roots. Not only do Ozark history, culture and scenery continue to inspire their songwriting, the name of their band honors Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Camdenton, Mo.

“I think it’s such a unique area,” Roberts said of his Ozark homeland. “Beautiful landscapes, old hill country, the fact that my family has been there so long…. It’s just a really special environment to grow up in.”

Roberts, Long and Bone grew up in West Plains, MO, and didn’t meet Anderson, who hails from Lee’s Summit, MO, until college. They all attended Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in Springfield.

Roberts and Long started the band in late 2001, and eventually added Bone and Anderson to the lineup. At that time, they were known as Amsterband. In 2007, they became Ha Ha Tonka. The name change was necessary to avoid confusion with other bands with similar sounding names.

In the beginning, Roberts admits, the band was more about having a good time. But as time went on, he and the rest of the band they wanted to make music and tour professionally.

“We wanted to write about where we’re from and what we know about: people, places and things of the Ozarks,” Roberts said. “There’s always been a lot of music and culture from Appalachia, and there’s just the same amount of talent and great things in the Ozarks. I think it deserves more attention.”

But their songs are not limited to the Ozarks. Roberts said he’s ready to put his thoughts on paper any time, and even carries around a small, brown notebook he calls “The Trail Diary,” in case he finds inspiration.

“You never really know what’s going to motivate you or inspire you,” he said. “It might be an old building you see or sometimes I’ll see a date – you just never know.”

Their song “1928” (a bonus track from their latest album, Death of a Decade) is about the West Plains Dance Hall Explosion, one of the biggest tragedies to occur in that area that killed 39 people.

"I think that anyone who grows up in West Plains is in some way affected,” Roberts stated. “I've always imagined that the dance, since it was so terribly and tragically interrupted, never ended….We wanted to write a song that touched upon this notion that the young lives lost live on in some way.”

Death of a Decade , their third album, was recorded in a 200-year-old barn in New York.

“We like to record in a lot of different places,” Roberts said. “The first one (album) we recorded in an old church; the second was in an old building downtown in St. Louis; and then this one’s in a barn (starts laughing) so… that’s either a natural progression or natural regression, I don’t know.”

The band has played Lollapalooza and toured with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, but Roberts said he’s most proud of just being able to make music with some of his best friends.

Ha Ha Tonka continues their tour through July, also playing Wakarusa, in Lawrence, KS, and Wicker Park Festival, in Chicago.

Melissa Cowan can be contacted