Son of a Preacher Man: Slim Cessna's Auto Club is one of the last relevant cowpunk bands.
By Paul Davis
There's a host of influences at play in the music of Slim Cessna's Auto Club--bluegrass flat-picking, gothic noir, punk abandon--but before you jump to declare some strained approximation of their far-flung sound, take heed that the Denver group wants to be known as a country band, first and foremost.
"If you look back, to when we started, we were adamant about being called a country band," Cessna says. "We've created something that can't be talked about in [alt-country] terms. We just call it American music."
Mind you, Slim Cessna, lead singer of his eponymous band, doesn't worry about semantics all that much--nor does he need to. Though the country-gothic outfit has yet to reach the prominence it deserves, Slim Cessna's Auto Club has established itself as a fiery revival show of punk energy and down-home soul, no definitions necessary. The band has followed a separate path and become the most vital band currently taking a gander at the bastard offspring of punk rock and country twang. In fact, they may be the only cowpunks that still matter.
"I would never consider it an alternative country band," says Cessna, "in spirit, it's punk rock--a bunch of people with interesting things going on." Still, there are enough high and lonesome yodels and furious banjo licks to preclude the band from hitching its wagon to a Minor Threat reunion tour. Cessna recognizes this, and like a number of down-home punks that came before him, he ties the many musical and cultural traditions the band encompasses back to the simple, three-chord folk tradition that inspired country, bluegrass and punk alike. "The foundation," he says, "is that it starts off as a folk song in the true sense of the word. We start off with a story."
What with the dizzying maze of influences encircling the band, the one strain that runs as a constant through the band's music is a sense of righteous fury, born in piety but transformed into something far less chaste. You might credit Cessna's Baptist upbringing (his father was a minister) for the group's fixation with matters of the sacred and the profane. Yet Cessna is quick to note that despite people's expectations, this influence doesn't grow out of a stereotypical Southern Baptist background, the type that has fired the imagination of countless B-movie writers and kitsch songwriters. "People have mistaken me as coming from fire and brimstone and snake handling, but it's actually very conservative," notes Cessna, referring to his suburban Baptist upbringing. Any gothic edge, Cessna contends, is to be attributed to banjo-picker and backup vocalist Munly's Catholic upbringing. "I'm the only Baptist in the band, but Munly brings in the dark, gothic Catholic thing."
Smitten by righteous fervor, fueled by the endless drive of bluegrass and the insatiable fury of punk, Slim Cessna Auto Club's live performances bear some resemblance to those snake-handling rave-ups that Cessna refers to--but despite these bacchanals of gloom and doom, Cessna urges listeners not to read too much into the subtext. "We do tend to look like we're going down that Southern Baptist road," he says about the group's explosive live performances, "but actually, we're just having a good time."
Slim Cessna Auto Club performs Saturday, July 7, at 7pm at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $13 advance or $15 day of show. (831.460.1800)
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