'What the Southern experience used to be," writes author Madison Smartt Bell, "has already passed. Whatever it is now, this too shall pass."
Plantations and magnolia blossoms notwithstanding, singer Brian Roberts can't help but agree: "It seems like portrayals of the South have always focused on it horrific past or its amazing hospitality. It's either Driving Miss Daisy or Mississippi Burning, like there are only extremes. And it's much more nuanced than that."
The same can be said for the music of Roberts' band, Ha Ha Tonka. Growing up between the Ozark Mountains and the Missouri state park the group is named after, Roberts and his bandmates play a beguiling brand of post-Southern rock they've taken to calling "indie rock meets O Brother, Where Art Thou."
So there's some irony in the fact that the band they're most often compared to is Kings of Leon, the Nashville hitmakers who've been hailed as inheritors of the Southern rock tradition.
"We're not Southern rock per se, at least not in the Skynyrd mode," says Roberts, who's currently in the fourth month of touring the band's Bloodshot Records release, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. "But I think in the mainstream music world today, Kings of Leon are maybe the only group with a singer that sounds like he has a speech impediment, which I probably do, too. And so we get compared to them all the time, which I'm fine with. I think it's a flattering comparison, and if we could only sell one-hundredth of the records that they sell, I'd be happy."
Prophets without honor
What Ha Ha Tonka does have going for it is considerable critical acclaim, musical depth and an engaging stage presence that's enabled them to tour with bands ranging from Cross Canadian Ragweed to Ludo (whose spinoff group, the New Heathers, will share the Black Sheep stage with them Sunday). The group has also performed at a number of major music festivals, which counts for pretty much nothing back in their hometown.
"A lot of people in West Plains wouldn't know what Lollapalooza is or what Bonnaroo is," says Roberts. "So when you go away and play them, they wouldn't recognize it."
Geographically, Roberts and his bandmates did eventually migrate a few hours west to Springfield, where they attended Missouri State University. They went on to record their first Bloodshot album, the appropriately titled Buckle in the Bible Belt, in a converted church with a control booth where the pulpit once was.
While the band's songs are lyrically diverse, they can still conjure up Southern gothic imagery with the best of them: "Could he ever find forgiveness from those gospels he came to preach / Held her down as he baptized her so that heaven she might reach," sings Roberts in "Caney Mountain."
"The song is loosely based — and I always say loosely based — on a story I heard growing up about a traveling preacher who came through our area," says Roberts. "He didn't rape and murder a girl like the one in the song — he'd stolen some horses — but the story is that my great-grandfather and some of his friends were on the posse that hunted him down."
Health and harmonies
"Caney Mountain" has also become something of a calling card for the band, especially after a team of Kansas City animators created the visually arresting music video that found its way onto YouTube's homepage.
"We played an Obama rally, and one of its organizers really liked the band," recalls Roberts. "He was an animator whose team was looking to do a music video, so we just let them run with it. It's the coolest thing we've ever done that we never did."
Other song subjects have been less predictable, ranging from meditations on meth use in the Ozarks ("It's such a cheap drug, and a lot of the ingredients are readily available in a rural area where law enforcement isn't necessarily going to crack down on it") to a personal take on the health care debate (Roberts had cancer in college and figures if he hadn't been covered by his parents' insurance plan, he "probably would have just had to die.")
On Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, he says, the idea was to "expand on some of the things we talked about on Buckle of the Bible Belt." Ha Ha Tonka also pushed itself musically, with four-part harmonies and arrangements that may yet lay those Kings of Leon comparisons to rest.
"We don't just go verse-chorus, verse-chorus, middle eight and then another chorus," says Roberts. "We want to take the listeners on sort of a trip through the album and try to express different shades and colors with the sounds and soundscapes."
Which is not to say that the spectres of the South will fade any time soon: "I love the Southern way of life," says Roberts, "but it does have this horrific past that's always looming right there and constantly has to be dealt with."