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How Wovenhand, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Munly and Bob Ferbrache Forged the Denver Sound
The umbrella term “Country Music” casts a long shadow across a vast landscape of styles and subgenres. There’s a well worn road that cuts through the heart of this terrain, known collectively as “Pop” or “Mainstream” Country -- which pretty much serves the same purpose as Tom Cruise movies, Bud Light and Snickers bars.
Yet off this beaten path there is a little known trail that branches off toward the west. It curves around an old graveyard, cuts through an ominous copse of trees and opens into a valley all its own. Reverberating across this expanse are the rich layers, haunting echoes and semantic convictions of Gothic Country Music. This resonant subset of religious fervor, antiquated tones and superb craftsmanship can be seen as the melancholy cousin of Alt-Country. An introverted vagabond who wears all black, refuses to watch television and dropped out of college to wander the woods at night.
Genesis of a Genre
It could be said that the initial trills of this sound are detectable in some of the mid-80’s work of Tom Waits and Nick Cave yet the definitive act that brought the sound into its own was none other than the Denver Gentlemen. This band fostered a number of offshoots that have collectively honed what is known as the “Denver Sound” – a term now synonymous with Gothic Country. The Denver Gentlemen began to splinter apart in 1992, when co-founding member David Eugene Edwards departed to pursue 16 Horsepower and eventually Wovenhand. Simultaneously, his band mate Slim Cessna left the fold to form Slim Cessna’s Auto Club.
Cult of Personality
Both chose to build on the foundation they helped create with the Denver Gentlemen – each subsequently becoming local, regional and international icons. Both acts have associated with and cycled through a host of exemplary players over the years. One standout among this Olympian roster is songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Munly, another is guitarist/producer/engineer Bob Ferbrache. Both are responsible for Herculean contributions to the collective mojo of the Gothic Country genre. Despite their individual proclivities, David Eugene Edwards, Slim Cessna, Munly and Bob Ferbrache all exude a similar air of class and humility. A sublime sense of modesty that is wholly uncharacteristic of musicians of their caliber. They are soft-spoken and affable, rather than pompous and pretentious like their mainstream counterparts -- telling traits for makers of layered, nuanced and complex music.
Fans of 16 Horsepower and David Eugene Edwards’ current band Wovenhand, are aware of an acute sense of spirituality within the music. Yet unlike some zealots who are blinded by faith, Edwards sees man’s relationship with his creator in a more volatile way. In a recent interview posted on SteelForBrains.com, Edwards intimates: “God does what he wants to do. He’s not part of your little construct here. He’s down the street with some guy who doesn’t know how to sing that doesn’t even have a voice. He’s making music with that guy or with someone who can only grunt.” In the same interview Edwards dismisses any notions that he is a musical virtuoso, explaining that his self-taught status has made him a target for accordion and banjo purists: “I’m literally a heretic to these people, and not only to them but a heretic to rock and roll people as well.” Legendary Denver tattooer Jef Kopp describes a live Edwards experience: “Seeing him live is to see a man truly possessed of “The Spirit.” I feel transported by his music and not just that … his conviction is powerfully compelling. 16 Horsepower or Wovenhand, doesn’t matter what band it’s been or what project it might be because David is honest. In a time where everyone seems to be racing to see who can compromise their vision and/or principles first, he remains true.”
Wovwnhand "Hiss" from Refractory Obdurate
Slim Cessna is a magnet for talent, a sort of musical lighthouse attracting great players looking for a place to call home, even for just a little while. Over the last 25 years Slim Cessna’s Auto Club has been graced by the presence of Dwight Pentacost, Frank Hauser Jr., John Rumley, Gregory Garcia, Munly, Ordy Garrison (currently of Wovenhand,) Bob Ferbrache and many more. The live shows are the thing of legend, as Cessna and co-frontman Munly share vocal warblings and call and response wails of salvation while the band delivers an ultra-tight set of Americana that whips the crowd into a gospel-like frenzy. Slim lends a particularly compelling bent to an almost Baptist-like rendition of finding Jesus and vanquishing evil from his soul. As a former manager of a local club, I can attest that after witnessing this live at least half a dozen times the conviction is palpable and the depth to which the crowd is moved is real. Backstage Cessna is a laid back gentleman, once glancing at me and saying: “We’re gonna have ourselves a real nice time tonight, ain’t we …” as a golden glint of light skipped off his left front tooth.
Do you know your Gothic Country?
Which of the bands mentioned in this article has producer Bob Ferbrache had a hand in producing/recording?
A Poetic Anomaly
The Ominous Poet
Munly has delivered his signature brand of otherworldly Americana as Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots and Munly and the Lupercalians, all the while contributing to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and other projects. The result is an impressive body of work bearing the artistic stamp of a man fixated on the light and mostly dark aspects of musical sojourn. He is intensely particular about how his songs are interpreted, admitting that he is not a fan of collaborating or “sharing.” In a 2012 interview with Westword’s Jon Solomon he explains: “We don’t collaborate on songwriting. I’m actually really selfish about that. That’s what I do. There are certain jobs, and I’m not really good at sharing that one.” A respectable stance considering the result is music distilled to a vintage that justifies severe scrutiny. For a man concerned with quality of verbiage, Munly offers few words in person. Working in a music venue, I was fortunate enough to see the three aforementioned acts. One particular evening before sound check, Munly was tinkering with a stage prop. I asked if I could be of some assistance and he simply said: “Table … screwdriver.” I lent him a flat head and upon returning it he added: “Thanks.” Another time when I was not on the clock, I cornered the poor guy on the back patio at Larimer Lounge after a show and proceeded to offer drunken praise for his work. Instead of telling me to shut up (as he should have) he listened quietly, nodded here and there and even shook my hand as I stumbled off.
Like a wizard hovering over his potions, spells and ancient texts, Bob Ferbrache combs through tracks laid down by Edwards, Cessna, Munly and their contemporaries with a profoundly detailed ear. Absinthe studio is the unofficial incubation facility of Denver Gothic Country, and Ferbrache is the mad Doctor nurturing the sounds to maturity. A longtime contributor to the Denver Sound, he currently plays pedal steel and electric mandolin in Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and can claim production credits on just about every Gothic Country recording to ever come out of Denver. Talking to the man, you get the feeling that there is matrix of calculations and formulas being pored over in his head as he makes easy conversation in his 2-piece Guido jumpsuit and fanny pack. As the name of his studio suggests, Ferbrache distills his very own brand of mind expanding elixirs, a nip or two of which have taught me to respect the power of the man’s touch. I have mastered several recordings with Bob, during which time I was treated to a viewing of his baffling collection of Gibson guitars, rock memorabilia and world-class condenser microphones. I was also afforded a rare glimpse into just how meticulously detailed one of his recordings can get. He sometimes achieves exceptionally harrowing textures by layering track after track of vacillating guitar feedback in the rhythmic foundation of a song before ever tracking instruments or vocals. Part of Ferbrache’s musical experience hearkens back to the 1980’s and his involvement with multimedia European phenomenon Blood Axis as a player and producer. The material is colored with a particularly dark, Gothic bent, no doubt a motif that translates to the tones Ferbrache conjures, cultivates and toils to perfect. In a 2007 performance at the Lions Lair, Slim Cessna put it best when addressing the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen … this is Big Bad Bob – Godfather of the Denver Sound.”