Fairplay, Colo., is a tiny town perched in the highest reaches of America. At a cool 9,957 feet above sea level, you find things there that you don't find other places. Something about the lack of oxygen at that altitude allows for unique characters to exist. It's the kind of place that would be a perfect setting for a song by the band Slim Cessna's Auto Club.
Slim Cessna's father was born in a house right on Fairplay's Main Street. As with many old mining towns, there are really only two streets that someone needs to know: Main Street and Front Street. My partner and I were living there when we became acquainted with Cessna and his music during a self-imposed, back-to-the-land exile phase. Cessna's father was a Baptist preacher, and Cessna grew up visiting the town.
Slim Cessna's Auto Club started out in Denver in 1992, and the band began playing shows the following year. The band started when Cessna and Frank Hauser Jr. left The Denver Gentlemen to strike out on their own. Originally a drummer, Cessna had the urge to step out front.
"I had some songs that I wanted to sing," says Cessna. "Basically, the band was an exercise for me to learn how to play the guitar and for us to learn country music."
They learned it all right. (At least the country music part. Cessna has since given up on the guitar.) Along the way, they created a unique sound and style that's kind of old-timey, with an accordion player, slide guitarist and the towering talent of Cessna—who checks in at well over 6 feet tall—leading the charge.
The first time that we saw them play was at the Lion's Lair in Denver, a watering hole on Colfax Avenue. Colfax is the old Route 66 and, at the time, still had the neon-lit charm of that wide road of adventure. We had come down from the mountains of Fairplay to Denver's measly 5,000 feet to drink like fish. We watched across the top of the sunken bar as the band took the stage. Cessna was a sight to behold: bespectacled, gold toothed and made even taller by a cowboy hat perched atop his head. As a showman, he may have learned a thing or two from his preacher father. Each member of the band wore suits, and they started out playing a tidy set that showcased their musical talent. At one point, Hauser stepped up to sing backing vocals, and yelled mightily into the mic. This was no ordinary country band; this was something completely different.
We started to go see them whenever they played. Around that time, Cessna showed up for a night of drinking in Fairplay, where I was tending bar. Stories were told, songs were sung, and we've been friends since.
The Auto Club released their self-titled debut album in 1995. On it were songs that included Cessna's lullaby to his daughter, "Dear Amelia," and tributes to their favorite Denver locales. "Kristin and Billy" features a sing-along chorus about "a waitress named Nonnie / at the 404," while the climax of "Champagne Like a Lady" offers the questionable compliment "well you sure are a looker / like a Colfax hooker." Around Denver, a legend was born.
Cessna began developing a kind of yodel that set SCAC apart.
"I guess the yodeling was part of the initial sound, but it wasn't really deliberate," says Cessna. "I'm a Slim Whitman fan, and he hits those really high falsetto notes. He's the only person I've tried to copy vocally, so that must be where it came from."
In 1995, SCAC also released a live CD, American Country Music Changed Her Life, and then everything changed. Well, almost everything.
We left Fairplay for parts better known. Cessna moved to the East Coast, and though the rest of the lineup changed, he stayed on as the front man of the Denver-based band. The Reverend Dwight Pentacost joined the ranks on guitar, and Cessna teamed up with the inimitable Munly Munly, both of whom have been in the band since their 2000 release, Always Say Please and Thank You. Munly's writing talents and low, guttural delivery gave SCAC an even more interesting sound. His voice is as low and rumbling as Cessna's is clear and high. A kind of alchemy occurred, where parts of the musicians combined together and transmuted into something altogether new. With the new lineup, the music could no longer be categorized as country.
"Describing our music is hard," admits Cessna. "By now, I think we have legitimately made our own genre of music. It is whatever it is, and it is whatever we do." It is definitely American music, inspired by folk tales and music and is certainly traditionally based. Munly writes fables, often dark, unusually funny and utterly twisted. Cessna's tales look across America to find oddities in tucked-away places.
"We take whatever we have been influenced by—that can be landscapes or people or music or politics—and create something new," says Cessna. "We all come up with ideas separately, and then bring them together. It's almost like a collage; everyone contributes their own unique gifts."
SCAC has maintained their unique sound on their last three albums, all of which have been released on fellow Denver-ite Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label. Those recordings stand as a fine body of work and have provided material for what is arguably one of the best live shows around. In my experience, nothing compares to watching the band perform songs such as "Hold My Head," "Goddamn Blue Yodel #7," "Pine Box," "Last Song About Satan," "This is How We Do Things in the Country" and "Mark of the Vaccination" live, with Cessna and Munly out front.
Their shows have been likened to a tent revival meeting, and you may well feel converted when it's all over. The fervor of the band is undeniable, and as their well-crafted songs build to a fever pitch, you'll feel yourself being carried along. Cessna is modest about his role as a preacher-like figure.
"It's mainly just the product of rocking out as hard as you can with your friends," he says of the zeal of their presentation.
The SCAC roster is filled out by Ordy Garrison, Shane Trost and John Rumley. The band is touring in support of their March release Cipher, and will make a stop at music schmooze-fest SXSW in Austin, Texas. Then they will head off into the sunset until the time comes again to regroup and tell some more twisted tales.
See them when they play Boise and come away with some stories of your own. We're ready for some new ones, too. After all, we're a long way from Fairplay.
March 6 with Jeremiah James, $5, 9 p.m. Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 208-343-0886, Neurolux.com.