Reverend Horton Heat Revs Up the Rockabilly Engine Again

Bow down at the altar
Bow down at the altar
Gene Ambo

To characterize the musical stylings of the Reverend Horton Heat as simply rock 'n' roll is akin to saying the founder and leader of the popular rockabilly band, Jim Heath, likes playing the occasional live show.

For more than the past quarter-century, the Dallas-based Heath and his two bandmates have created music that defies classification, but runs the gamut of country-fried rockabilly to zany psychobilly to slick surf-metal mayhem on an ever-evolving revival tour that has traversed nearly every major city, college town and jukebox joint in the U.S. multiple times.

With notable songs, "Psychobilly Freakout," "Wiggle Stick," "One Time For Me," and "Big Sky," the Reverend Horton Heat has pockets of fans across the country and globe who flock to the band's shows every year to see the nitro-burning rock-'n'-roll road show.

Heath has lived through one bad marriage and one good, four drummers, six record labels, 11 studio albums, and more than 3,000 shows over 30 years, making the Reverend Horton Heat band one of the hardest working and well-traveled groups in the land. From Boise to Brisbane, Atessa to Albuquerque, Rochester to Rotterdam, and Virginia Beach to Vitoria-Gasteiz, this band has left its mark, flying under the radar of mass pop pap and settling in comfortably as alt rock icons, instead.

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"I enjoy the music much more than I did when we started, but I don't enjoy the travel as much," Heath admits, noting that the band averages more than 100 gigs a year and adding that he wishes he could see the sights more. "But, it's all good. I have a place I can rest every day [the tour bus] and be fresh for the gig."

The Reverend Horton Heat band is in the midst of yet another tour leg which lands in Phoenix on Thursday, April 9, at a familiar haunt, Crescent Ballroom. The traveling trio is touring and playing music from its deep catalog, including new songs from last year's Rev release on a new label, Victory Records.

The album sees Heath and band returning to the style of frantic, fast-paced fun that has attracted and kept loyal fans since 1985. Heath plays like a man possessed on his signature Gretsch 6120RHH guitar, and his rock virtuosity rivals any of the great rockabilly guitarists of all time. Add to that his more than adequate rhythm section of longtime mates, Jimbo Wallace on stand-up bass and Scott Churilla on drums, and Reverend Horton Heat is a well-oiled machine.

Despite this reputation and catalog of crowd favorites, he and his band suffered critical reviews at the hand of many rock media and some fans, which both seemed to sour on the band's previous 2010 release with Yep Roc, Laughin' and Cryin', which had a definite country twang.

"You gotta try different stuff," he says in defense of the country release. "That was a fun album to do, and I like country, but that's a pretty hard field to get into. The kind of country music I like, which is more straight-ahead honky-tonk, gut-bucket country, is not widely accepted. Country music now is just a bunch of bull shit; it's terrible."

Having scratched his country itch, Heath, 55, began writing and recording songs more in line with the old Heat sound. Simultaneously, (having been with Yep Roc Records for six years up through 2011) Heath says he began shopping for a new label he to provide more focused (and financial) support. In the process, he found a more than a passing interest from Victory Records founder/owner Tony Brummel in Chicago.

"Tony told me that back in the '90s, he had wanted to sign us, but our manager [at the time] never responded," Heath says with a sense of irony. "So far it's been very interesting because he calls me on the phone out of the blue all the time, just to shoot the shit. I mean we never really had that at the other label before."

Heath says the relationship has been pretty solid. And based on chart action, the efforts of both band and label seem to be paying off, as Rev peaked last year at 111 on the Billboard Top 200, and even more impressively got as far as number two on the Heat-Seeker and 26 on the Indie charts.

The trio returned to its core rockabilly-psychobilly garage sound, which has been the key draw for his loyal fan followings the world over, and it did so before it struck the new label deal.

The band recorded the songs that would eventually make their way onto the new album at Universal Rehearsal Studios and Modern Electric Sound in Dallas, near where Heath lives, and fine-tuned them after the band signed with Victory. Rev has its share of Heath's familiar tongue-in-cheek songs loaded with double entendre laced, lyrics, and musically varies its tempo, but always consists of controlled mayhem.

Rev is a pedal-to-the-medal joyride highlighted by the curiously alluring "Let Me Teach You How To Eat," the jingle-jangle toe-tapping, chorus volley-filled "Mad, Mad Heart" and the reflective rockabilly guitar-licked road woes of "Scenery Going By." All three numbers reflect the love-hate relationship that comes with being an itinerant preacher who bleeds, sweats, and tears at the alter of real rock 'n' roll.

Heath and band have worked with some big-time alt-rock musician/producers over the past three decades, none of the least of which are Al Jourgensen of Ministry, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, part-time fourth band member Tim Alexander of Asleep at the Wheel, and renown producer Ed Stasium. Despite this, Heath knew what sound he wanted and decided to produce Rev himself, and he added another hat to his growing list of titles he's accumulated during his career.

"I have been having a hard time for years," he says. "I mean, my music can be a little zany, and I really love the zaniness of those old recordings and getting these studios to go that direction with me was just about impossible."  

So part of the understanding with Victory was that as an accomplished act, Heath and his entourage would oversee production of their new music arrangement with minimal oversight from the label.

Also no stranger to making videos, Heath and his band have made nearly a dozen over the past quarter-of-a-century, including ones for fan favorite Heat classics, "Psychobilly Freakout," "Wiggle Stick," and "Do It One Time for Me."

Victory Records jumped on this proven commodity and worked to produce videos for "How To Eat," "Scene Going By," and "Mad, Mad Heart." The first one the label wanted to make, and did so adding some hired eye-candy in the vein of local Chicago burlesque dancers who take turns in front of the camera dancing around in cooking scenes interspersed with the band's mugging and playing.

"[Victory Records] had that whole thing planned out," says an impressed Heath. "You know, I really do wish I could spend more time coming up with and helping produce videos. We play so much. I don't have time to do videos because I am too busy playing gigs and trying to record the songs."

With Rev having hit the streets just over a year ago January, there is no rest for the tireless ringleader, who already is planning for the next album in between tours and running the band's day-to-day business.

"Reverend Horton Heat is a successful small business, so I am actually busier off-tour. I am constantly being a good tax compiler and filling out my forms, and doing the bookkeeping and playing," shares Heath. "I am at the point in my career where it makes my fans mad if I release too many albums. They like the old stuff, they want to hear the old stuff, and when we release a new album it takes them a while to except it. I want to do singles and videos, so it's like 'Here's the two songs that we just released.' When we play live, people can handle two new songs."

At the end of the day, Heath and his band do what they do best -- crank out album after album of high-octane rockabilly music. They are popular with fans who like no-frills music, at full-throttle speed from a band whose leader is actually quite humble.

"I just really consider myself to be a musician-singer. When the gig's done, I would rather go out to the bus and practice my guitar than with hanging around with famous people," he explains, adding, "I might be a prima donna sometimes, but I usually try to be a warm and genuine person first."

What else would you expect from The Rev?

Reverend Horton Heath is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, April 8.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Crescent Ballroom

308 N. 2nd Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85003

602-716-2222

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