Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
It doesn't seem exceptionally random or constructed to feel Springfield, Missouri, band Ha Ha Tonka is a slightly sweating Pabst Blue Ribbon can. A can is preferred when Pabst is what it's filled with and that has so much to do with the aesthetics of the can that in no small part probably would have helped the formula win that first-place blue at the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago had the beer already had that name. There must have been some changes made to piggyback that victory, but the can - as far as most of us are concerned - is a legend of patriotic colors, old-fashioned refreshment and simple, navigational design. It and those Bud heavy cans are not to be messed with when tradition is at the table, tucking a napkin into its collar.
Babies, who have never imbibed a sip of the golden drink, can recognize those trademarked cans in a lineup from the time they're 2 ½ years old or earlier. They'll sloppily, with a couple buckets of drool lubricating the exclamation, shout out "Bud" or "Pabst" and they'll get a joyous round of, "Atta boys" from all of the pink-cheeked men standing around cracking the tops of those cans. They're more iconic than the Campbell's Tomato Soup cans because people take to one of them not just in cold months or times of illness. There's the thick blue and silver-outlined ribbon with a beefy red stripe crossing from left to right behind it and at the bottom of the design is a banner of barley and hops (that somehow looks like raspberries and wheat - but that's sacrilege when talking about an iconic beer can, questioning the look).
Below the design is a short graph in antiquated font that says, "This is the ORIGINAL Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Nature's choicest products provide its prized flavor." This is something that was established is 1844, they say, back before all of the oil and gold were found and back when having a good, hard-soled shoe was the only way that you wanted to operate. It was all about how you walked across the earth that mattered. The American Indians wore moccasins, touching the soil as gently and benevolently as they could. The battalions of soldiers during the Civil War wore boots that were wearing out thin from the marching and the same went for those trying their damnedest to eek out a living in a piece of country that wasn't quite ready to be lived on yet. Those traveling westwardly were forced to make their own luck, to forge on through the heat and the dust and the drought, planting seeds in a soil that might become an unforgiving enemy.
Ha Ha Tonka embodies many of these bygone rites of passage that were not happy adventures, but scary ones, only the band of Ozarkians doesn't dwell on the hard-scrabble existence of living life with only a single loaf of bread to your name and some rusty water to drink. They focus on the folk tales of dirty dealings, the horrific stories of misdeed and even more so, the carefree leisure time that never seemed to have interruption back before distractions were invented. Listen closely to the bluegrass picking and playing, the harmonious belt of voices all cannonballing into the deep end of the water at the same time, splashing all of what could be called excess out and over the sides, and you're bound to pick up little subtleties that could sound like hard-eyed BBs plinking against an old soda can sitting on a ledge for target practice.
It could sound like a prickly, frayed rope and an old tire rubbing against the big old branch it's hanging and swinging from, after all of the children have been called into the house for dinner. It could sound like gravel roads and bottle caps tinging against the wall out of boredom. It's sitting in the shade of a massive, 200-year-old oak tree, thinking about all of those various years and just trying to stay as cool as possible. Ha Ha Tonka endorses the time when it was a badge of honor to only have a couple cases of Pabst to drink on a weekend afternoon, when there was nothing better to do, no one could reach you and you didn't want to be reached.
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