People practically worship Jim Heath. Better know by his stage name, Reverend Horton Heat, the Texas native helped usher in a whole new genre of music in the mid-‘80s, which is often referred to as ‘psychobilly.’ However, upon further exploration, it’s a term Heath isn’t exactly comfortable with, but has grown to accept over time.
“I have to explain my music quite a bit because where I live not a lot of people are up to speed on Reverend Horton Heat,” Heath says from a tour bus in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “I say we’re a rock-n-roll band that is especially influenced by ‘50s-style music, especially rockabilly. That kind of gets the fact in there that maybe we’ll have a little surf guitar in there or maybe country or a little blues, or maybe even punk rock. Now we’re so fast and up-tempo that many people think we’re just a punk rock band. The kids are moshing. That’s all I know.”
Before he was known as the “Reverend,” Heath was playing in high school cover bands in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. He had grown up surrounded my music all his life and really fell in love with good ol’ fashioned rock-n-roll.
“I remember trying to play Johnny Cash when I was like 10-years-old,” he says. “I was exposed to stuff like CCR, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins really young, but I just kept gravitating towards heavy rock-n-roll. In the midst of all that, I discovered the blues. When I started listening to blues around 12 or 13-years-old, I started playing music, practicing a lot and being interested in being bands.”
After moving to Austin in 1977 to attend the University of Texas, Heath was captivated by the punk music scene. He left in the spring to pursue a career in music. At one point, while in visiting home, he ran into his old college roommate David Livingston who took him to see The Cramps in Dallas. That night, Heath said he had “an epiphany.”
“My epiphany was that since The Cramps were a punk band using rockabilly, I could be rockabilly using punk,” he explains. “I realized that the still somewhat new punk movement harkened back to the real rock-n-roll of the ‘50s and early-‘60s.”
Rather than go after the “rock-n-roll lifestyle,” he did the opposite. Heath had recently become a young father and he decided he needed to have a “real job.” By 1985, he was known as the “Jim the Sound Guy.” This didn’t last long. Soon after, the Reverend Horton Heat was born. Almost thirty years later, a lot has changed, but all for the better.
“We’re more successful now so we can take a bus, which makes it a lot more comfortable,” he explains. “Back in the van days, it was very, very difficult. We would do crazy stuff. We’d do a show, finish the show at 3 a.m. and head out driving. At some point, we might stop at a hotel and rest for a little bit then we get up and start driving to the next gig. All that driving in the van was hard on us physically. For me, it’s way easier now.”
Recently signed to Victory Records to release his 11th studio album, Heath has jumped around a lot during the course of his career. Initially signed to Sub Pop in 1990, he’s had stints with Interscope, Yep Roc, Time Bomb, and Artemis. At the time, Sub Pop made the most sense.
“It was a really good move for us,” he says. “When we signed with them, it was the real beginning of the grunge thing so when they were talking to us about signing us, Nirvana was still playing the same venues we were. At that point in time, it all made sense. In all honesty, I’m not a person that really that goes, ‘I want to go be on a label with that band.’ What are you going to do? Go hang out with them? Have Thanksgiving with them just because we’re on the same label? It really makes no sense. My thing is that I just need a really good machine that’s there that will promote my music. Other bands on the label, hmm, no. What am I going to do? Go call Kurt Cobain and say, ‘hey dude, we’re label mates?’ I don’t really understand what all that is.”
Heath is grateful for his new home at Victory. His first Victory release, Rev, drops January 24, 2014.
“I do think we’re something different for Victory and that’s good,” he says. “It’s a really well oiled machine and to have them promoting us is a good thing.”
Victory is lucky to have Reverend Horton Heat. His work ethic is one of the fiercest in the business. He doesn’t necessarily believe in “natural talent.”
“ I’m not a big believer in doing anything ‘naturally,’” he says. “You have to have a work ethic, you have to have a hunger to do that; a hunger to learn to get better is way more important than having a talent to begin with. The sad thing about that is it causes a lot of people to not want to learn how to write or play guitar or piano so they go, ‘well I just don’t have an ear for music.’ I don’t think they understand. It’s not really bad; it’s just that you gotta practice.
“It’s not like you just sit down and start playing guitar because for one thing, your fingers are going to bleed,” he adds. “You have to build up your calluses. Muscle memory is a big part of it and it’s a repetitive thing. That’s the key to it. The other side of that coin, you get these people that might say, ‘well I just have a god-given talent so I got the talent, you didn’t so get me a Coke right now. I’m thirsty.’ You know, whatever. That’s how you get the Whitney Houston syndrome going on right there.”
While Heath has never been the type to go “diva” on anyone, he knows what he’s contributed to the music world and it’s a place he’s happy to stay.
“This is basically all I do,” he says. “I’ve been doing the music thing prior to doing Reverend Horton Heat for a long time. If I feel like if I can keep getting better then I’ll keep going. I love doing it. It’s a dream career. I try to remember that this is what I wanted and this is what I’m doing so don’t take it for granted.”
For Heath, the endless traveling sometimes gets monotonous, but he knows it’s integral to not only his livelihood, but to his entire team’s livelihood.
“When I go on stage and play music, it’s the greatest thing ever,” he says. “We did a private party last week for about 50 people and we got paid very well. It was super fun just to get up and there and play. It’s what I do. To make that happen, I have to do a lot of stuff that I don’t like doing, which is traveling every day. We do about 100 shows each year. Doing my laundry in some ghetto laundry mat, stuff like that isn’t fun.
“The one thing is though we gotta make money,” he continues. “We’ve got a great tour manager, great lightning guy and these guys have been working for me for so long they’re my best friends. And they need money to work. The simple fact of the matter is I go out there, we play music and I make money. If I were to just stop, I’m successful enough where I could probably say I’m going to stop for a year, but what would they do? It’s humbling. Then after that year break, I would probably not be able to get them back. They’d be off doing something different. For me to keep this thing going artistically, I have to make sure we play a lot of gigs. But like I said, I still love doing it. That’s my art form so I’m willing to put up with all that other stuff.”
For now, if Heath has a chance to kick back and listen to Merle Haggard, the new Deke Dickerson record, Les Paul, and Dale Watson, he’s content. He’s heavily into classic country, but has an appreciation for a handful of contemporary artists, as well.
“One thing that I do like that is going on right now is this resurgence of soul music, which I think is really cool,” he says. “I like more raw stuff. Alabama Shakes are pretty neat. The Black Keys are pretty neat. I like it and I think it’s healthy. All in all, they are playing good solid riffs as opposed to just sampling stuff.”
As Heath approaches another new year with Reverend Horton Heat, he’ll likely play over 100 live shows, relentlessly promote his new album and keep the legend of the “Rev” alive. What he wants is simple.
“I hope and wish that what I’ve been able to do will be accessible to younger people coming up in the future,” he says. “This is a dream come true.”
Reverend Horton Heat with Nekromantics & Deke Dickerson, January 15, at The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St., 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Visit www.onepercentproductions.com for more information.