By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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Rockabilly savant Reverend Horton Heat has an eye on the moral corruption damning the music industry. To wit:
"It needs repairing. But it's not the music," he says. "I just think there are a lot of mediocre bands that get hyped and somehow end up on MTV. All these unproven bands--they get a manager, a big label, put in a bunch of money and get on MTV."
The Rev's formula for success boils down to a solid Puritan work ethic and a spare tire.
"The real way to do it is to have a very reliable Chevrolet van," he says, adding, "or a Ford van. I really think the new Ford vans will change the face of modern music.
"Look, if you're gonna be successful on a major label, you're gonna be touring all your life anyway. Might as well do the groundbreaking now. We tour all the time. We don't have people telling us, 'Tour!' We have people telling us, 'Don't tour!'"
If road-weariness is next to godliness, then the Reverend and his partners--bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Taz Bentley--must be sprouting big, white wings. For the past seven years, they've traveled more than 120,000 miles while taking their songs of sin, sex, substances and salvation to club audiences across the land.
Legend tells us that prior to being "ordained," plain old Jim Heath was a "guitar-playing orphan prodigy" who spent "most of his teen years in an eastern Texas juvenile correctional facility." Young Jim eventually wound up on the Dallas streets, busking and hustling pool. It was in those smoky, boozy dens of iniquity that he hustled Jimbo and Taz, two reprobates with a greater talent for music than billiards, into getting the hell outta town to see what was down the road a piece. Along the way, Jim Heath turned into Reverend Horton Heat, courtesy of a club owner fond of alliteration. Sub Pop Records saluted. The moniker stuck and an attitude became a persona.
As the Rev tried to explain to a British interviewer, "I'm fascinated by that whole thing between good and evil and rock ' roll. [There is] temptation in every corner. Every bypass. Folks just don't appreciate what I go through! Every little piece of hallway in front of a woman's rest room is temptation calling out to me . . . And I don't understand bands that don't drink. In Arizona, there's a law that says you can't drink onstage, so the last show we played there we stopped for five minutes, guzzled a pitcher of beer each and got back up. I know I shouldn't do it, but I've got my own demons to deal with. Some day, I just know I'm gonna walk right with the Lord."
Riff, if you will, on this music-as-religion angle. What do you make of a guy who dresses up in white pulpit finery, his bassist and drummer in red satin choir robes, then poses, baptismal-style, in the middle of river for the cover of his second record? Or who regularly harangues his audiences for their moral transgressions? (And hints that he may start tossing Bibles at them. Shades of Stryper.) He probably mines this shtick for personal gain, right? To sway the affections of sweet, young things for the apräs-gig laying on of hands. Amen!
Just ask your local teevee evangelist, the Rev's trip is as red, white and blue as commie-bashing. Americans get caught up in that contradictory vortex of sacred and profane emotions, especially where music's concerned. Robert Johnson moaned about hellhounds and Faustian bargains in one breath, swooned from the textures of female flesh in the next. Jerry Lee Lewis never quite reconciled his mortal status. Would our heritage have been as rich if he'd pounded out, say, "Great Bells of Heaven" with his wingtips?
Copyright 1993, from the Rev's latest, The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat:
"Sunset lights the sky/But there's shadow over me/Black clouds in the east/And there's twisters underneath/Long, white limousine/And there's evil at the wheel/Satan's in the back/Says he wants to make a deal" (from "The Devil's Chasing Me").
The accompanying music is also a study in detail. A 50s shuffle prodded by jazzy snare-and-cymbal hugging from Taz. Fat, bass plucking from Jimbo so low-down you can practically see him twirl his upright ax on its spike. Psychotic bursts of string-bending reverbmanship from the Rev. It's an archetypal sound that reeks with atmosphere. Smells like brimstone.
Now on his second album--Smoke em If You Got em was released in 1990--Reverend Horton Heat is witnessing 365 days a year. He takes the daily concerns of an itinerant musician and elevates them to tragic status, whether professing the joys of being a politically incorrect carnivore (Eat Steak"), a hooch-swillin' dope fiend (Marijuana," "Beer: 30"), or an incurable satyr (Wiggle Stick," "Big Little Baby," "Bad Reputation").
Throughout, the rhythm section is beyond reproach. Jimbo is schooled in the ways of riding his standup bass like a surfboard. The Rev's fat-bodied, fret-board savvy contains echoes of the masters, from Dick Dale and Duane Eddy to Charlie Burton and Johnny Burnette. Not to mention fitting in nicely with an elite squad of contemporary rockabilly, surf, Tex-Mex and blues aficionados that includes, among others, Tav Falco's Panther Burns, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, Southern Culture on the Skids, Forbidden Pigs, Gibson Bros. and Loco Gringos.