Reverend Horton Heat – Godfathers of Psychobilly

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Blazing through three decades, Jim Heath has seen a thing or two as the frontman for Reverend Horton Heat. The band established a cult-like following with fast-playing, nonstop touring and the kind of hardcore grit that earns the title of the Godfathers of Psychobilly.

Returning to Jacksonville for the first time since 2014, Heath, Jimbo Wallace and Arjuna “RJ” Contreras swing into the season with Horton ‘s Holiday Hayride Dec. 19 at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. In partnership with Flying Saucer Productions, the show also features guests Big Sandy, Junior Brown and The Blasters.

“We’re not going to play a whole bunch of Christmas songs, but we’ll play a few, and there will be one or two originals,” says Heath. “We did a Christmas album a while ago that was pretty well received, so it makes sense that we ought to play some of those songs.”

We Three Kings, released in 2005, featured such holiday classics as ‘Silver Bells,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ recorded as only Heath could do. But Reverend Horton Heat is a band that’s best experienced live. With flames embossed from his guitar to his custom-made suits, Heath steps on stage and into character as a “slicked-back 1950’s rock & roll shaman channeling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins through Buddy Holly.” The band is backed by the “Heatettes,” foxy rockabilly chicks dressed in poodle-skirts and cowboy boots.

Heath remains rooted in nostalgia, with a passion for greaser memorabilia, pinup girls, hot rods and muscle cars. It’s a way of life that dictates not just how he looks and the music he writes but how he approaches the business of being Reverend Horton Heat.

“When I think about it, our career is kind of like an epic walk through the rise and decline of different aspects of the music business,” says Heath. “We got a major record deal right at the tail end of when they were giving out big record deals. This was back in the day when you still had to go into the studio to record. Now guys just get Pro Tools and record in their basement. We’ve been through so many phases. It’s quite an odyssey.”

Since 1985, Heath has witnessed the birth of the CD nation and heard the death rattle of record sales. He recalls sitting in a meeting where a guy asked him if he knew what the little white thing in his hand was. “I said ‘no,’ and the guy goes ‘it’s an iPod. It’s going to change the world’.”

Heath may be a speed demon on the guitar, but, today, he’s in no particular hurry. In his syrupy Texas drawl, he talks to EU Jacksonville about the band and the plans for the upcoming year. So far, 2018 is shaping up well. Reverend Horton Heat embarks on an ambitious tour schedule through June with a revolving list of guest artists. There is a new album in the works but the release date is still fuzzy as the band works on sharpening the tracks to a fine point.

“We’re really challenged with all that. My band works so hard, and this guest thing is really difficult and time consuming. We have to stop in the middle of a set, and the person comes out,” he says. “It’s cool, but we have to learn all that material as well, so it’s kind of putting the damper on the album. Once it comes into focus more, it’ll go pretty quickly, but, right now, it’s still out of focus.”

In a distant galaxy not all that far away, Heath says the band would try out new material during live shows, but YouTube put a stop to that. “I’m not sure how big of a difference it would make, all in all, but it’s better for us to just wait until the record is finished,” Heath says. “If you really think about it, music is a streaming live thing to begin with. A record is almost like a band making an advertisement.”

Heath points to bands like Pink Floyd or Steely Dan that coast on the laurels of past music and slide in once every decade or so for a comeback tour that may involve a handful of dates before sitting back and collecting royalties. “To me, that’s the excess of the music business. That’s great for those guys, but if it makes you not be a musician, that’s not good. I’m a musician, and I look at my art form as music.”

On average, Reverend Horton Heat plays about 120 shows a year. That’s one third of the year they are gone from home, away from their families, in strange hotels and unfamiliar cities. It’s not always the glamorous, rock star life. Many times, the venues are in remote corners of a city away from restaurants, movie theaters, or even a good cup of coffee.

The band is beginning a series of residencies in major hubs like Dallas and Chicago, affording Heath the luxury of playing every night for the fans without the punishing travel schedule. The experience is flecked with nostalgia, back when musicians worked lengthy stretches as a club’s house band.

“The residency thing is pretty cool. By the fifth or sixth day, it’s like Groundhog Day all over again, but it takes me back to the 70’s. Most clubs didn’t have their own PA systems, and it was so much to have to set up and break down, so they’d play for five, six, seven day at a time. For me, it’s kind of a throwback to that,” says Heath.

“When I was a kid, I latched onto career artists who were cool without having a hit record and could keep going and going. One was BB King. He was the first guy I tried to learn guitar licks from. Guys like Ernest Tubbs, Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, they’re still out there doing it. We’re still doing it. We keep going no matter what. In some ways, we keep getting bigger. Even though we’re not getting airplay. The stations that gave us airplay don’t even exist anymore. What I do hasn’t changed. I still take my guitar and amp and play for people who drink beer and get sweaty.”

 

About Liza Mitchell

october, 2021

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