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Slim Cessna's Auto Club: just call them country

By Joel Bernstein, December 2000

You can call them alternative country, psychobilly, cowpunk, goth-country, or whatever else you choose. Slim Cessna knows exactly what he considers his band, Slim CessnaÕs Auto Club, to play. He calls it country. No hyphens, no adjectives. Just country. Although he does admit that "WeÕre a country band, but weÕre kind of fucked up."

His Denver-based group is now on Jello BiafraÕs Alternative Tentacles label, not commonly a home for country artists.

But Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash are on labels with similar orientation, and no one questions their country music credentials. The Auto ClubÕs third album (first national release) "Always Say Please and Thank You" may sound like what some people consider to be music other than country, but Cessna says, "I think it is country compared to the new Top 40 bands. I call it country because people want to put a label on it. 'Alternative countryÕ is a term that doesnÕt make sense to me. ThereÕs a ton of hats, a ton of different things. I donÕt consider Johnny Cash to be alternative country even though a lot of (alt.-country) listeners think heÕs the greatest. "

This is actually a new version of his band. "Two years ago, I changed personnel. I wanted to have fun playing music. I needed to take a break. But I started to go nuts not playing."

He got back together with John Rumley, the Auto ClubÕs organ/pedal steel player and "decided to start playing again. Then, some of our friends started playing with us. IÕve known them all for years," Cessna says of his current lineup.

Cessna is speaking to us from his home in Rhode Island. ThatÕs right, his band is still based in Denver, but Cessna himself moved East last year. The Colorado born-and-bred musician says, "My wife is from Rhode Island. I had her land-locked in Denver for 10 years, and I guess that was enough."

It seems a little impractical, but Cessna insists, "We can make enough money playing in Denver to pay for plane tickets. I use the Internet and get cheap tickets." Fortunately, the band is touring now that they have a national release. TheyÕre playing dates mostly with 16 Horsepower, a popular Denver group, which has been steadily building a following elsewhere. In the early '90Õs, Cessna was in a band with 16 Horsepower leader David Eugene Edwards.

"16 Horsepower does really well in Europe," says Cessna. "We went to Paris once for a couple of weeks, but weÕre trying to figure out how to get there financially. We havenÕt done much outside of Denver until this new album came out."

Listening to CessnaÕs latest may put some in mind of The Violent Femmes. "I couldnÕt say that IÕm not influenced by them," Cessna acknowledges. "I donÕt really hear (a similarity) musically. Maybe in attitude. One of the most important things that happened to me as a teenager was hearing their records."

The son of a Baptist preacher, Cessna describes most of his songs as being about "sin and salvation."

ThatÕs a topic that has always been a cornerstone of country music. The Violent Femmes have recorded their share of such songs. And so has the man whom Cessna considers his musical hero and greatest influence, Johnny Cash.

"Cash has never really fit into the country sound. ThereÕs room for people like that. IÕm not trying to compare myself to him in any way. He is the greatest of all time. HeÕs in the Rock Hall of Fame as well as the Country Hall of Fame. That he was accepted as a legitimate country singer is phenomenal, because he never sounded like anyone else."

Of CashÕs current status, Cessna says, "HeÕs being marketed a lot differently. It opens up things for a lot of people - including myself. It gets young people interested in this kind of music."

While he insists on calling the Auto Club a country band, Cessna says heÕs never run into problems playing for an audience that was expecting something very different. "WeÕve never played in a quote honky-tonk.

In fact, Cessna has a story about one gig that just shows you can never tell how audiences will react. "We played for a week in Las Vegas during the Rodeo finals. We were the opening act for (on separate nights) Chris LeDoux, Joe Diffie and Johnny Cash. A lot of things worked out the opposite of what weÕd expected. I was really worried about opening for LeDoux. I had the idea we would get our heads kicked in. But his crowd went nuts and absolutely loved us - even more than the Johnny Cash audience, which we thought would be our best."

Maybe they won over that crowd because, as Cessna says, "We put on a good show. ItÕs even more of a live experience than the CDs. We pride ourselves on high energy performances."