Return of the Rev

Born again with a new label and album, the Reverend Horton Heat continues to preach his holy trinity of booze, broads and cars

The Reverend Horton Heat is one of those guys who always seem to fill a room. The indomitable swagger, slicked-back hair, stylish threads and ubiquitous highball in hand all combine to inflate the man to mythic, or perhaps semireligious, proportions. But his larger-than-life persona is a product of fate. Born Jim Heath in Corpus Christi, Texas, the orphaned, guitar-strumming prodigy was destined for a life of rock 'n' roll before he could even talk.

His latest sin-and-salvation opus, Spend a Night in the Box, reverberates truth like a street-corner preacher with a half-empty hip flask. The Reverend's sermon, backed by the twin assault of Jimbo Wallace's slap bass and Scott Churilla spanking snare, fills a room in much the same way. Theirs is a combo platter of rockabilly, high-power swing, jump blues, foggy swamp and country that seems to go best with copious amounts of beer, the band's own brand of holy water.

Heath, calling during a rare five-day break from the road, sounds like a man who's caught a second wind in his career. "This might be my favorite record ever," he says. "The whole record just has a really pure sound to it."

After difficult tenures with both Sub Pop and Interscope Records, the band has finally found a home in Timebomb Recordings, the San Francisco-based indie -- home to Mike Ness, the Aquabats and others -- that signed the group last year. Heath claims the move has already been "a godsend." "It's the first time in my career where I'm on a label where I'm a priority," he says. "It's never been that way before."

Heath's dissatisfaction with Interscope stemmed from the label's efforts to marginalize the band's rockabilly roots. "They couldn't believe that I wanted to put 'that terrible stuff' on the album," he says sarcastically. "I'd fight tooth and nail to get our rockabilly on the album and they just couldn't believe that I was such an inept artist that I'd want this type of stuff on there. They didn't understand that rockabilly is what we are. That's what got us here."

Finally free to indulge their creative yearnings, the result is at turns raucous and deliberate, yet more sincere than anything since the band's 1992 debut Smoke 'em If You Got 'em (though an excellent overview of the band's entire oeuvre can be found in last year's cross-licensed Sub Pop compilation Holy Roller, featuring a sampling of album tracks, B-sides and rare cuts).

Produced by Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary and recorded at Willie Nelson's Pedernales, Texas, studio, the new disc lifts its title from a line in the 1967 Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke. "Sometimes we just feel like we're trapped inside a box, working and sweating to achieve something just like those guys on the chain gang," says Heath, a man who spent many of his early years in the Eastern Texas Juvenile Correction Facility. "Except we have a lot more fun."

The Reverend's unique idea of fun, along with the troubles that habitually follow it, are explored in full on Box, which, despite the origin of its moniker, evidences no failure to communicate the gospel truth loud and clear. Similar in style to the band's earlier efforts, except for a stronger emphasis on swing, the new album boasts a noticeably rawer retro sound than their last long-player, 1998's Space Heater. Credit for that, Heath says, should go to Leary.

Ironically, Leary isn't the first Butthole Surfer to produce a Reverend Horton Heat album. Surfer singer Gibby Haynes lent his efforts to the band's second album, 1993's The Full Custom Gospel of the Reverend Horton Heat.

Asked to compare the two men, Heath laughs and offers a diplomatic response. "Paul and Gibby are both pretty eccentric people. Gibby might be a little bit crazier than Paul, but Paul believes that the moon is an alien satellite where they land and take off their spaceships from." Despite this bit of hallucinatory paranoia, Heath was duly impressed with Leary's talents at the board. "Paul was really great," he says. "He emphasized the guitar solos so that there's really more guitar playing on this album than on any one I've ever done. He's either obsessive-compulsive or a genius, I can't tell which."

Leary was also influential in selecting Nelson's studio to record the new disc. "One thing that was good about it is that it felt like home to us," recalls Heath. "We'd done part of [1996's] It's Martini Time there and it was really cool. We had a little condo on a lake there and we'd get to see Willie almost every day." The band's relationship with Nelson goes back to its participation in the 1996 Justice Records tribute Twisted Willie, where the band picked its way through the Nelson classic "Hello, Walls." Though Nelson doesn't guest on the new album, the group's spiritual debt to the Red Headed Stranger is evident on cuts like "It Hurts Your Daddy Bad" and "The Bedroom Again."

Booze and broads have long served as the twin pillars of Heath's muse, and Box is no exception. Tracks like the tear-jerking "Unlucky in Love" ("My first love, she left me all alone, my second she cut me to the bone") find the Reverend in fine lyrical form. If the sharpness of his pen hasn't dulled, then neither has the Reverend's very definite views about the proclivities of the opposite sex. "Every girl I've ever been with has always said, 'Jim, if we were to ever break up, it would be a very long time before I could ever be with someone else.' And whenever we did finally break up, they were with someone else within 24 hours," he says, then adds dryly, "That'smy advice about girls."

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