For as long as the folk songs of hillbillies and Appalachian wailers have been called "country songs," the genre has been the province of those tip-toeing between grace and damnation -- Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, and others for whom the pursuit of holiness often took a backseat to the pleasures of sin. For more than two decades, Slim Cessna's Auto Club has played country songs but expanded outward as well, incorporating elements of punk, rockabilly, gospel, and rocksteady, all the while evoking Christian dread, employing fire-and-brimstone wit, and singing bloody murder ballads.
In that time, the band has developed a reputation as a tremendous live act, and it's well deserved. Led by two frontmen, band namesake Slim Cessna and the wild-eyed Jay Munly, the group's shows feel like violent, apocalyptic hootenannies or gothic church services where the preachers have dipped into sacramental moonshine. (Yeah, that's not a thing, but watching Slim Cessna's Auto Club do what it does, you can imagine it is.)
The Auto Club formed in Denver in 1992, and while the band's members are now spread across the United States geographically, they still convene regularly to tour. The band hasn't released a proper LP since 2011's Unentitled, but the lure of the road is its own thing, Cessna explains via phone from Pittsburgh, where he's fresh off a plane and in tour-preparation mode.
"The Auto Club just tours because that's how we make a good chunk of our money," Cessna says. "We don't tour based on whether or not we've released an album, because our albums are like three or four years apart. We just don't work the same way other bands do. We don't hurry to put out record after record. We try and create a masterpiece." Cessna laughs, adding, "Whether we've accomplished that I have no idea, but at least that's what we want to do."
Many of the band's albums have approached that stature. The band's self-titled debut, self-released in 1995, is a cranked-up gem, recalling the cowpunk of the Blasters and X, the gothic folk of the Violent Femmes, the biblical wrath of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the junked-up art-blues of the Cramps. With 2000's Always Say Please and Thank You, Cessna addressed his youth as son of a Baptist minister. Like the work of his friend David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, with whom he played in pre-Auto Club band the Denver Gentlemen, the record contains a curious mixture of doubt and devotion. "Last Song About Satan" features a key lyrical passage, one that embraces its theological concerns with tongue firmly in cheek, pushed through a set of gnashed teeth: "Lucifer, you piece of shit, I should kick your ass right where you sit."
"I think originally for me [the music] was a way to work things out for myself, just trying to figure shit out," Cessna says. "Since then, I just kind of stopped worrying about it."
You grow up, you mellow out, Cessna says. "I'm not bitter anymore," he says laughing. "I don't even know if that's the right way to phrase that."
For the last couple of albums, Munly's role as lyricist has grown, and Cessna says he approaches the band's Christian themes from a different angle.
"He is just a classic American storyteller, and using Biblical imagery and those kind of things is also very American and kind of part of our growth and the direction we ended up going in," Cessna says.
The duo's relationship is the bedrock of the Auto Club. He's played in the Auto Club for 15 or so years, Cessna says, and they've been fast friends since the band's inception. The two play in another act as well, the cheekily named Denver Broncos UK.
"I think the foundation of both groups is very much the same," Cessna says. "It's Munly as the storyteller. Denver Broncos UK is much more of a Munly project -- more Munly-driven than the Auto Club."
After decades of creative partnership, the project serves as an experimental outfit.
"It's quieter," Cessna says. "It's us playing with different kinds of ideas, trying to keep ourselves interested."
To that end, the Auto Club's albums have also grown increasingly diverse. Unentitled finds the band as loose as it's ever been. The album even features Cessna and crew indulging their taste for two-tone ska with "The Unballed Ballad of the New Folk Singer."
"We kind of set ourselves free from trying to be a country band years ago," Cessna says. "I think that the foundation of what we do is very much that, but we've stopped worrying about things and have tried to let the songs develop naturally, rather than us trying to be something."
The creative freedom comes at a cost, though, he admits. "The problem with that is that it makes it difficult to sell records," Cessna says, laughing. "The further we allow ourselves freedom, the further we get from any kind of a genre . . . Sometimes people buy music because it's a certain kind of music, and we never belonged to those clubs. So we've had to work harder."
Luckily, the band's found a home in independent label Alternative Tentacles. Signed to the imprint by founder Jello Biafra, they've recorded for the label since 2000. "They've let us do whatever we've want," Cessna says. "Jello has always been very supportive. He was a fan of the band before we were on his label, and a friend of ours, and it works. It's a good fit for us, it's a good home for our records to live in. [Jello] has very eclectic taste, and he doesn't worry about how many records are going to sell, he just puts records out because he wants to listen to them."
It's the only kind of arrangement that could work for the Auto Club, a band that doesn't behave like normal bands. It tours, irrespective of releases; it plays what it wants, not beholden to the conventions of genre or commercial appeal.
But no matter what the band does -- what styles it employs -- Cessna admits that it all started with country music. Growing up, he'd listen to country records with his father. His son, George Cessna, has launched a career as well. George's latest album, Sincerely Yours, released in August, drips with twang and lonesome pedal steel. Its centerpiece is a gorgeous campfire song, "Song for the Last Cowboy." Just as the Auto Club drew on Slim's father's sermons, George draws on his father's musical roots.
"I was raised with country gospel music," Slim Cessna says. "I wanted to embrace that. I wanted to make a country band, it was something that I wanted to do since I was a little kid. It was time."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.