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Slim Cessna, leader and namesake of the Denver-based combo Slim Cessna's Auto Club, is sitting in the cozy living room of his Englewood home, listening to a Lefty Frizzell record with a beatific smile on his face. His wife, Victoria, isn't nearly so happy. She loves Frizzell, too, but she also loves variety, and Cessna has been playing the same side of this album for more than three hours straight. At her request, he reluctantly flips the platter over. "I could listen to that forever," he says.
This sincere devotion to country music--real country music--can be heard in every note played by guitarist Cessna and Auto Club compatriots Frank Hauser Jr. and Caleb Roberts, who share time on accordion and stand-up bass. Their performances are rip-snorting affairs during which the aptly named Cessna, usually outfitted in a Western suit, string tie and enormous cowboy hat, and the charming Hauser, looking like a young Charles Bukowski on a three-day drunk, howl with lusty abandon. By comparison, Roberts, a veteran bluegrass player also skilled on the mandolin, is more low-key; he can most often be found casting sidelong glances at his bandmates, seemingly amazed that this off-kilter pair is capable of producing such a raw, beautiful noise.
Hauser is equally stunned by the warm reception the Auto Club has received from audiences with little background in country music. "We played this `alternative' show at Fiddler's Green," he says, "and these fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds were totally into whatever we were doing. They came back after the show and asked for our autographs."
"We've done really well playing for punk-rock kids," Roberts concurs. "I think my bluegrass friends should come down here and play for the punk rockers, too. It'd be a nice change of pace, since the only way to make money playing bluegrass is to play for old people."
In fact, Cessna notes, listeners of all ages have proven susceptible to the Auto Club's music. "Even my parents like it," he says with a grin.
The elder Cessnas didn't always enjoy their son's music. When Slim started playing in bands during the early Eighties, he was enamored of early punk and post-new-wave sounds. Pointing at a shelf filled with tattered LPs, he admits, "If you look hard enough, you might even find a U2 record up there." At the same time, he harbored a love for C&W tunes of the sort epitomized by Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers. As this part of his musical personality slowly came to the fore, he came into contact with kindred spirits. While living in Boston between 1985 and 1988, for example, Cessna was a member of Blood Flower, a group that also featured David Eugene Edwards, now of 16 Horsepower, and Jeffrey Paul, who went on to form the like-minded Denver Gentlemen.
The most recent configuration of the Gentlemen--among the finest and most intriguing acts based in this area during the past several years--included Cessna and Hauser. Both continue to laud the band. "I still think the Denver Gentlemen is the best band I ever heard," Cessna claims. "It's a great band, and still will be."
Nevertheless, the Gentlemen's future is up in the air, thanks to the departure of Hauser and Cessna, who played drums in the band. Cessna was eager to sing in a group, but since he got few opportunities with the Gentlemen, he formed the Auto Club with Hauser and Roberts as a side project. "When we started, we just wanted to do old country-and-western songs," Cessna recalls, "but then we started adding new material and decided to give something new a try."
At present, the Auto Club doesn't have many miles on it ("We've had more shows than rehearsals," Cessna admits), but its track record over its first several months of life is impressive. Cover songs, including a wonderful version of the chestnut "You Are My Sunshine," are part of the package, but just as endearing are Cessna originals such as "Amelia," an ode to his four-year-old daughter. Some will take the players' hillbilly moves as satire, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Hauser says, "This is just a fun band. There was a certain angst in the Denver Gentlemen, but our job is just to have a good time. There's something about playing in front of people that's just very amusing to me."
With a band this young, changes are to be expected. The Auto Club has just added a percussionist, Jon Killough, after convincing a reluctant Roberts: "I hate drums," he says, "but Jon looks cool." Cessna also hopes to recruit a pedal-steel player and to live up to the high standards set by his idols. He gestures to the Frizzell album spinning on the turntable, cocks his head and smiles. "Lucky thing the second side is just as good as the first," he says.