“Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.” —Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone

There’s a certain wisdom that exists in the hills of the Ozarks. It’s a wisdom that spits out of the mouths of Woodrell’s characters; it’s a wisdom that is found in the lyrics by Woodrell’s fellow West Plains, Missouri natives, Ha Ha Tonka; and it’s a wisdom that’s found on the band’s new full-length LP, Death of a Decade.

“They say that if you don’t change where you’re going / you’re gonna end up right where you’re headed.” —Ha Ha Tonka, “Made Example Of”

Recorded in a 200 year old barn in scenic New Paltz, NY with producer Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, The Felice Brothers, The Walkmen), Death of a Decade began as a stripped down record, rich with warm tones that could only be captured under a 30 foot roof of a barn. “We wanted to make sure we left in all the imperfections of the barn such as the chairs squeaking and the boards creaking”, explains lead singer Brian Roberts. After tracking the songs in this rough hewn setting, the files were shipped to hAUs Studio in Kansas City, MO where The Ryantist mixed and manipulated synthetic sonic threads into this organic tapestry. Death of a Decade is where authentic meets synthetic, acoustic meets electronic, and tradition meets innovation.

Thematically, Death of a Decade is less “story-based” than Ha Ha Tonka’s previous work (which pulled heavily from Missouri history and folklore for its lyrics), with the band now focusing on the transition into manhood—something that doesn’t automatically come once you pass a certain age: “I realize that youth is wasted on the young,” Roberts sings on “Westward Bound,” “Oh, I know that now my wasting days are done.”

However, Roberts says, Death of a Decade is not meant to be a requiem for lost youth, but rather an embrace of the notion that the passage of time is better than the alternative. There you have it again: the wisdom of the Ozarks.

Even if the album’s songs aren’t specifically of the Ozarks, the sound is—still present is the traditional instrumentation (just listen to guitarist Brett Anderson’s arpeggio mandolin lines on “Usual Suspects” and “Made Example Of”), with bassist Lucas Long and drummer Lennon Bone rounding out the rhythm section to stampeding affect. Still present are the spine-tingling four-part gospel harmonies, a signature sound that sets Ha Ha Tonka apart from every other indie band-cum-Southern rock group that seems to be shambling out of the suburban woods these days.

Ultimately, what makes the Ha Ha Tonka brand of Southern rock so special is that it’s authentic, it’s effortless, and it never comes across as forced. They are masters at bringing together the traditional and the modern. They sit at the crossroads of Americana and indie, where Alabama meets Arcade Fire – shakes their hand and takes them out for a drink.

So, back to Woodrell’s Ozarkian wisdom from “Winter’s Bone,” being considered one of the best bands you’ll discover (or rediscover) in 2011 isn’t something Ha Ha Tonka ought need to ask for—it will be offered.

More about HHT: Named after Ha Ha Tonka State Park in their native Missouri, the group’s relentless touring has seen them become one of the most buzzed about young bands in America, appearing at Lollapalooza, Sundance Film Fest, SXSW, CMJ while touring nationally as a headlining act, as well as supporting many great bands such as Old 97s, Murder By Death, Langhorne Slim, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin, Ludo, Meat Puppets and more.

"Let's not give away what all the songs are about," requests Amanda Shires via email — shortly after an hour-long interview discussing exactly that. "I think I prefer for the listener to decide for themselves what stuff means, because I always hate it when I think a song is about a horse, and then it turns out to be a damn trip to France …"

And so, by artist request, there will be no handy track-by-track cheat sheet for Shires' new Carrying Lightning. But if you really can't deduce what the songs are all about on your own, then consider yourself equally blessed and cursed, because odds are you've never been knocked on your ass by the wrecking ball of human desire — the kind so lovingly bottled by the young Texas songwriter in the album-opening "Swimmer, Dreams Don't Keep":

"April was the last time I think I saw you
You were carrying lightning
The way you walked into the room,
If I was a flower I would've opened up and bloomed
I say I don't care, but I'm a liar
Look how easy a heart can catch on fire …"

That same charge of romantic/erotic tension courses throughout the entire album, which sways from innocent daydream ("Swimmer") to restless longing ("Love Be a Bird") to explosive lust ("Shake the Walls") to blissful contentment ("Sloe Gin") and, finally, back to wistful fantasy ("Lovesick I Remain"). The specific, behind-the-scenes details — such as who or what inspired each particular song, or to what extent each stems from Shires' own life vs. her sheer imagination — need not be divulged or even probed, because, as the mysterious little messenger in "Ghost Bird," "all feathers and a heartbeat," puts it best, "Baby, we're all running from the same things: broken hearts, broken homes, the tired and the loneliness …"

"I guess the theme of the record as a whole is just, 'get wrecked in love — and be loved," says Shires. "Or, to steal a quote from Sylvia Plath: 'Wear your heart on your skin in this life.' That's my platform."

The quote may be borrowed, and the emotional terrain of the songs universally relatable, but Shires' voice is distinctly her own. Her Texas twang and fetching vibrato ("less goat, more note!" she teases herself with a laugh) can dance playfully around a melody or haunt a line like a mournful ghost, and she deftly employs her fiddle/violin, ukulele and even whistling skills to similar effect. The resulting sound is a beautiful but woozily surrealistic swoon — as well befits an artist who cites Leonard Cohen and alt-country dark horse Richard Buckner as two of her biggest musical influences. Or, as a review in Americana UK once observed: "At times, her energetic, jittery vocals and eccentric lyrical subjects mark her out as a young female heir to the godfather of strange, Tom Waits. In her more conventional moments, Shires sounds like the weird young niece of Dolly Parton."

In fact, Shires is just a down-to-earth, self-effacing West Texas gal currently residing in Nashville, working her tail off trying to find her niche in the music industry as an independent artist. In the recent Hollywood movie Country Strong, she played the fiddle player in the band backing Gwyneth Paltrow's fictional country superstar. In real life, Shires runs with a decidedly more left-of-mainstream-type crowd, including Jason Isbell (she sings and plays fiddle on the former Drive-By Trucker's latest, Here We Rest) and Justin Townes Earle (she's the lovely model gracing the cover of his 2008 debut, The Good Life). She also maintains strong ties to the Lone Star State, recording and occasionally performing with the Lubbock band Thrift Store Cowboys (which she joined while still in college) and sometimes even teaching fiddle at Texas Playboys' singer Tommy Allsup's summer music camp. She was only 15 the first time she played onstage with the Playboys (the Western swing band made famous by the late Bob Wills) — a mere five years after she coerced her father into buying her first fiddle, a lime-green Chinese instrument from a pawn shop in dusty downtown Mineral Wells, Texas.

In 2005, while still a regular member of the Thrift Store Cowboys, Shires released her solo debut, a mostly instrumental showcase for her traditional fiddle chops called Being Brave. But the fertile Texas music scene was overripe with side-person work for the talented young player and backup singer — so much so that Shires feared sliding into a complacency that, left unchecked, threatened to stunt her growth as a songwriter. So she relocated to Nashville — "to get uncomfortable and make myself grow some guts," as she put it once — and dived headlong into the process of writing and recording the first two albums to really put her on the roots-music map: 2008's Sew Your Heart with Wires, a collection of duets co-written and recorded with singer-songwriter Rod Picott; and what Shires calls her "true" solo debut, 2009's West Cross Timbers. Both were met with enthusiastic reviews and radio support, with the former being voted the fourth best debut album of 2008 by FAR (Freeform American Roots) Chart reporters and the later reaching No. 21 on the Americana Music Association Chart. The Gibson Guitar company featured Shires on their website as one of 2009's breakout artists, and No Depression called West Cross Timbers one of the 50 best releases of the year.

Shires was eager to get right back into the studio, but a busy touring schedule — averaging 120-160 dates a year, including at least one or two annual trips to Europe — necessitated that the follow-up to West Cross Timbers, be recorded piecemeal. "We did it over the course of 16 months in multiple sessions, just coming back and forth home to Nashville between tours," she says of Carrying Lightning, which she co-produced with Picott and David Henry at Henry's True Tone Studios. Fortunately, although it was hard to find time to lay down tracks, writer's block was never an issue for her.

"Some people only write when they're at home, but I just write, whenever or however I can," Shires says. "We ended up recording 20-something songs for the album, and the hardest part was trying to decide which ones to use. But having the whole process take so long is what ultimately helped give the record its shape and focus. I was really able to think about which songs fit together the best, as opposed to just, 'I'm going into the studio to make a record, and in two weeks I'll be done.' I had a lot of time to sleep on this one."

In fact, even now that the record's mastered, pressed and ready for release, Shires still isn't quite finished with it. Taking full advantage of the DIY promotional opportunities afforded by the age of social media, she plans to film videos for every song on the album, with "When You Need a Train It Never Comes" and "Lovesick I Remain" already uploaded to YouTube and more on the way. "We just shot one for 'Shake the Walls' today, and 'Ghostbird' will be next," she says. "I want 'Ghostbird' to be animated."

What's more, she's still haunted by some of the songs that didn't make the Carrying Lightning cut — if only because they didn't quite fit the theme of the rest of the record. Some of these she hopes to release before year's end as a separate EP.

"They were just too dark and would have seemed too random, I guess," she says of the orphan tunes. How dark? One of them apparently involved a girl getting her skin sliced off.

"Actually, that one was kind of a love song," she admits with a sheepish chuckle. "Maybe I should have left that one on the record!"

"Godfather" Waits would be proud.

Man in the Ring

Man in the Ring is the beloved folk rock band from Columbia, Missouri. Their music explores numerous genres and artistic aspects. Some influences are: Steely Dan, Robert Randolph, and Jason Mraz. The five piece band, featuring the crowd-pleasing electric violin, is community favorite playing charity events, local festivals (including three appearances at the annual Roots n Blues n BBQ festival), and headlining at the nostalgic venues throughout Columbia. With over 50 years of combined musical experience, the band bears an impressive line-up of professional musicians who aren’t afraid to live up to the challenge of Man in the Ring’s constantly evolving sound.

After releasing their self-titled LP in December of 2009, the band stayed busy living the dream and filling requests of Columbia to play around town and for local events. But never satisfied, Man in the Ring recorded a much anticipated live album in 2011, “Live at the Blue Note” that set their standard of performance even higher. The band has never had a lack of inspiration or passion, “One of our favorite things is the challenge of creating a musically appropriate texture, that fits between the rhythm section of Drake, Kyle, Nate, and Brad’s guitar and the lead voices of Molly’s violin and Brad’s vocals.” Out of this, the band’s performance resume grew, leading to an appearance at the premier SXSW music festival showcase in Austin, Texas.

True to its stock, Man in the Ring’s sound is ever changing and always diverse. In July 2012, the favorite players of Man in the Ring released the more rootsy album “Midnight Choir” under the name Brad Cunningham. Following personnel changes and the new album release, the band re-grouped with the addition of violinist Molly Healey (formerly of Big Smith fame). The band is traveling, playing, and constantly growing. Look for guest appearances by pianist Justin Nabors and a growing repertoire of original music accompanied by matured harmonies on old MITR favorites.

The band has accrued a supportive fan base and continually thanks them by donating 25% of their profits back to the community. “We think it’s important to show some support to the people who really are trying to do good things in this world, and if you don’t have the time or the will to do these things yourself, it is just as important to give whatever resources you can to those who do.”

Combining the unique sounds of raw talent and the rare sounds of an electric violin, MITR is an easy option for a new favorite band or for a familiar aspect to your growing music library.

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Ha Ha Tonka with Amanda Shires, Man in the Ring

Friday, September 27 · Doors 7:30 PM / Show 8:00 PM at The Blue Note (MO)