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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's my advice about girls."
Heath jokingly notes the one element that sets this collection apart is that "there are only six songs about drinkin' on the whole album." One of those, "Hand It to Me," is the tale of a man returning to the bars after a lengthy absence ("It's hard to believe I've gone and done it again/Went to a place to see all of my friends/One little sip and now look at me/If this bar were school I'd have a degree"). The tune juxtaposes the back-porch swing of the melody with the plaintive wail of Heath's voice -- which sounds as if he's pleading for recognition or rescue, but can't decide which.
Another, "Sue Jack Daniels," recalls an unfortunate evening spent ingesting quantities of Old Number 5 with the boys and ending up close friends with a tree that didn't get out of the way in time. "I'm gonna sue Jack Daniels for hittin' me/With the trunk of a big old live oak tree/He hurt me this morning with the bright sunlight/I'm gonna sue Jack Daniels for what he did to my face last night."
"There's a lot of truth to that song," explains Heath. "When I pass out . . . well, not when I pass out, but when I black out, I run. Most people just fall down and go to sleep, but I go running. One night I ran right into a freshly cut hedge and got stabbed right in the face. I had to do a whole tour with what looked like the world's worst canker sore on my face."
Despite a well-earned reputation as an on- and offstage hell-raiser, Heath says he's staying a bit more sober on this tour than in years past. "One thing about me being a little bit straighter at our shows is that I definitely play a lot better," he says. "I feel I'm getting a lot better as a guitar player and as a writer, and I can put on faster, more energetic shows than when I'm so drunk that I can barely walk."
Fortunately, neither Heath nor the rest of the band need to walk, run or take the wheel for the next few months. The trio is out on a lengthy national tour in support of the album and enjoying the luxury of a tour bus for the first time. It's something they note in Box's "Sleeper Coach Driver," an ode to their current home on wheels written from the perspective of their driver. "45 feet long and 11 feet tall, 14 televisions, shower and all/Two refrigerators and a satellite dish, I'll drive this sleeper coach wherever they wish."
"We toured for eight years in a Chevy van by ourselves," recalls Heath, "so to us that tour bus is like a castle." The song also serves as a lesson for up-and-coming bands that belittle their tour bus drivers, usually music vets themselves. "There are these young guys who are 21 years old, and now they're rock stars and they treat the bus drivers like they're some dumbass hillbilly piece of shit," says Heath with an air of disgust. "They don't realize that that guy probably played drums with Ernest Tubb for 20 years or something."
The lure and trappings of the open road have long been favorite subjects for the band. Heath, a hot-rodder at heart, owns a 1950 Ford two-door custom that's "too low for sanity" along with a '32 Ford currently being rebuilt from the frame up. "I've always been into cars and car songs," he admits. "When I was a kid, every guitar player had to learn to play 'Hot Rod Lincoln.' The hot-rod culture has definitely had an influence on my music. I'm actually thinking about doing a whole album about cars."
Whether the band or the audience arrive in a coach or in a rumbling bit of classic American steel, the destination is the important part, and for fans of the Reverend Horton Heat, all roads lead to the show. Listening to the band's albums is one thing; seeing the band onstage is quite another.
The band's live performance is a genuine spectacle, as evidenced by its amazing outdoor showcase at last month's South by Southwest festival in Austin. Emerging in custom flame suits to the strains of Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser," the group launched into a frenetic 45-minute set. By the end of the performance, Heath had the crowd of jaded industry heathens in the palm of his hand, proving that in his own peculiar pulpit, the Reverend is a man blessed and possessed by the true spirit of rock 'n' roll.
The Reverend Horton Heat is scheduled to perform on Thursday, April 6, at the Bash on Ash in Tempe, with Los Straitjackets. Showtime is 9 p.m.