A couple of rootsy, passionate, scruffy groups such as Mumford & Sons did their thing at the Grammy Awards this year, exposing their music to a relatively vast audience in one fell swoop. Mumford’s music is fine, but it’s a shame that Ha Ha Tonka couldn’t have taken that group’s spot. The Missouri quartet is not only authentically scruffy, it tears at the heart of American roots music with every chord like Mumford only pretends to, and its new record, “Death of a Decade,” basically oozes passion for the craft.
Named for a park in its home state, Ha Ha Tonka has been working since the turn of the century at a formula that marries lilting country harmonies (think Carter Family) and the muscular Midwestern swing of John Mellencamp to a folk-rock mainline. On this third record, the group manages this impressively: “The Humorist,” “Problem Solver” and especially “Westward Bound” sound like a band that has not only learned the difficult lessons that working, touring bands have to learn but figured out how to apply them.
“You couldn’t hear my confession / I swear, I was just about to change,” vocalist Brian Roberts intones on the title track, sounding like a man who has a past he’d like to forget. That the instruments and voices behind him sound that way too is the part Ha Ha Tonka gets and that many of their contemporaries — including most of those at the Academy of Country Music Awards — don’t.
On second thought, the Grammy crowd probably doesn’t deserve Ha Ha Tonka. Let’s make “Death of a Decade” our little secret, okay?
“Westward Bound,” “The Humorist,” “Death of a Decade”
Ha Ha Tonka performs Friday at Red Palace, 1210 H St. NE. Visit www.redpalacedc.com.