by Jane Roser
“The Rev”, as Jim Heath is affectionately called, has been preaching his high octane, fast paced, big red rocket of love rockabilly music for twenty five fiery years. The flame still burns gloriously on their 11th studio album appropriately titled REV. Reading Heath’s press release from Victory Records, whom the band recently signed with, is akin to thumbing through a cool, retro pulp fiction novel. It’s full of heroes and thrilling, colorful images of places you’d never dream of visiting, “he’s a time-traveling-space-cowboy on an endless interstellar musical tour, and we are the richer and psychobillier for getting to tag along.”
Consisting of singer/guitarist Jim Heath, Jimbo Wallace on upright bass and Scott Churilla on drums, The Reverend Horton Heat ain’t your mama’s rockabilly. “We take rockabilly and make it a little more punk,” explains Heath, “we’ll take country and get a little jazzy and a little bluesy.”
Heath has a slow, Southern, purposeful way of speaking that reminds me of my Uncle Homer in Macon, Georgia (by way of Dallas, Texas). He laughs a lot during our conversation, obviously loves what he does and enjoys telling a good, juicy story. Heath, for the most part, taught himself how to play music. “I took some lessons here and there, but I started just figuring out how to play by ear and was hanging around other guitar players, learning different aspects and chords. You have to teach yourself and dive right in.”
Heath’s cousins helped drive his passion for music, playing at family get-togethers during Christmas and other holidays, “I remember that one of my cousins was back on leave from Vietnam and he bought a new Camaro that had an 8-track player. He was playing “Folsom Prison Blues” and driving me around-he drove real fast. That kind of hit me, how powerful lyrics could be. On that recording, you could hear the reaction from the prison inmates and it was really powerful. Before that, song lyrics were just rather sing-songy and I suddenly realized how much power they have. My parents got me a little guitar and that was the first song I ever learned how to play.”
For the past few years, the band has been knocking around and talking to record labels, “the music business has changed so much,” says Heath, “because of downloading and streaming, the labels just don’t offer the same money on a recording project that they used to. They’re just not selling as many CDs, but also because a lot of bands now don’t really need a recording budget since they can record for themselves.”
Heath started collecting recording gear, got in touch with several sponsors, did some research and put together his own studio and rehearsal space. At that point, the band decided just to record the new album themselves. “Once we started on the project is when we got the deal with Victory Records, so we were actually able to do a bit in the commercial studio. I started recording this album about two years ago, so it’s just a process you go through and also finding the time to spend on it.”
The band tours constantly and took only a month off to make REV, so time is certainly precious. “This particular tour started in 1986 and I never unpack. I just do laundry, so there’s always a tour regardless of any record release. On this leg, we’ve had some memorable shows. We did three shows where Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys came onstage and sang six songs with us at each show, but we always have some really interesting shows.” Heath laments not being able to stop and enjoy the cities he breezes past on his song “Scenery Going By”. “It’s like, I’ve been everywhere, but I haven’t seen anything because you’re in and out so quick.”
I ask Heath about another new song entitled “Hardscrabble Woman”, wondering if this is someone he actually knew. Heath chuckles, “the girl that inspired that song is not nearly as crude. The song is about a woman who drinks and gets into fights with her old man, but the real girl is a friend of my wife’s who one time decided she was going to repair a leak in her sewage system on her own. It was in her backyard and she didn’t want to pay someone thousands of dollars to fix it. At one point, she figured out it was the section that was running under her back porch, so she went out and rented a jackhammer and busted out that concrete herself. I just thought, man, she’s a hardscrabble woman, so really she just inspired the title.”
Heath then tells another colorful story about this same woman and I’m glued to the phone like a teenager on a Friday night. “Recently, she’d moved out to a farm that is far from the main highway; you have to drive up this country road and then open a gate and walk another ten or fifteen minutes to get to her house. One day her nieces come running up saying ‘there’s a man out here!’ She thought uh-oh, looked out the window and saw him walking up, so she grabbed her pistol and told him to stop right where he was. The man asked if she had any gasoline for his car. She answered ‘maybe I do, but you need to stop right where you are or else I’m gonna shoot’. Well, he kept on walking towards her, so she shot at him, over his shoulder, and he finally stopped. She told him there was a can of gas in the shed that he could take, but not to bring the can back. You can’t really tell by the vocals, but the guitar part of that song very much harkens to Luther Perkins style (Johnny Cash’s guitarist). The boom-chick is kind of his guitar pattern.”
I love it when bands use album art that honestly conveys their sound, image and identity and REV holds true to this. “The cover is by Max Grundy. I’d never heard of him, but one of my friends is a mechanic who’s worked on films as a stunt driver, he’s done drag racing, built hot rods and also has good taste in music and art. That was an original piece of art that he has in his shop. I saw it and thought, oh man, that’d make a cool album cover. So we contacted Max Grundy and he was cool with it, so it worked out really good.”
Heath has a lot to look forward to this year, with the release of REV this past week, touring and playing several festivals, including one that he is especially excited about, “my friend, Oliver Peck (owner of Elm Street Tattoo and a judge on the Spike TV show Ink Master) and I are doing this festival in Dallas called Elm Street Music And Tattoo Festival. It’s the second one we’ve done so far. Elm Street is located in an area of Dallas called Deep Ellum; it’s an old neighborhood that goes back to the teens and twenties, it’s one of the early birthplaces of jazz and blues music, then there was a resurgence and now there’s a lot of cool clubs and shops there. We try to base it around Friday the Thirteenth, so this year it’s on June 13th, 14th and 15th. Hopefully we can keep it going every year.”
I have been itching to ask Heath one last question that I’ve been pondering for the past ten years. How does he stand on Jimbo’s bass and make it look so effortless? Amused, Heath tells me, “you know, those things are wide enough and pretty stable, so as long as you don’t try to get cute and jump on it; I just put my foot in he same place and I’m not on it for too long, so it’s not that hard to do.”
I’ve caught the Rev’s shows at the 9:30 Club in DC on several occasions over the past decade or so and if you’re lucky enough to attend a live show, and you should, prepare to rock hard, dance like you’re at a funkadelic revival and have your rock and roll loving soul saved. Amen.
The Reverend Horton Heat will be blasting his way to the Trocadero January 25th.