Psychobilly artist Reverend Horton Heat, a.k.a. Jim Heath, went to a Cramps show in 1980 that changed his life. But before he could reflect on his newfound musical revelation, he had to get the hell out of there — because when the music ended that night, a riot was just getting started. “It was the punks versus the heavy metal dudes out in the parking lot after the show,” Heath recalls, comparing the incident to a Dallas version of a mods-versus-rockers showdown. “The heavy metal dudes, those guys had knives and pistols in their Camaros, and the punk-rock kids didn’t have anything but the studs on their jackets. It was a big mess. Ivy [Poison Ivy, guitarist/co-founder of the Cramps and widow of frontman Lux Interior] told me that after that show the Dallas police came and forced [the Cramps] to leave town immediately.”
At that time, punk rock was still fairly new in Dallas, and Heath was hip to it. He actually was under the impression he was attending a punk show that night, but what the singer discovered in the Cramps was something completely different yet oddly familiar. “I get there and they’re playing Duane Eddy-type guitar licks,” says the 56-year-old musician, who’s speaking to us from a barbershop. “They’re playing songs like the ‘The Way I Walk’ by Jack Scott, which is basically a rockabilly anthem. And to me it was like all of a sudden the roots stuff that I had grown up with and loved and played — most of the Cramps songs are blues changes — so I heard all these things and thought, ‘Wow, the blues and this rockabilly rock ‘n’ roll thing could work with the punk-rock people.'”
Heath had been in every kind of band you could imagine — blues, ’50s rockabilly, ’60s soul and R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and even cover bands that played stuff like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But now, with a rockabilly movement on the brink, he envisioned an opportunity to be himself. “To me, it was a chance to turn my roots dream into something that people would actually want to come and see,” Heath says.
As a kid, Heath’s first guitar lick was from “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, but by junior high he was buying everything from Alice Cooper to Black Sabbath from the local mom-and-pop record store. And that’s where he heard the blues, specifically Howlin’ Wolf, for the very first time. “It was like nothing I had ever heard,” Heath says. “And to me it was like Howlin’ Wolf was even scarier than Black Sabbath.”
The blues graciously led Heath back to rockabilly and eventually to his signature psychobilly sound. But the name by which he’s now known didn’t come about in such a welcoming fashion. He was working as a club’s sound man when Heath’s boss heard him play and offered him a gig. While he agreed to play a set, the musician didn’t realize he was also agreeing to a new identity. “So I showed up and I was there in the afternoon to set my stuff up, and he comes up on stage and says, ‘Your stage name is going to be Reverend Horton Heat, OK?,'” Heath explains. “I said, ‘What? Reverend … Horton … Heat? Uh, no.'”
Little did he know the papers had him listed as such, and so the Reverend Horton Heat was born. “I was so poor and desperate at that point that I ran with it,” he says. Since then, Heath has joined forces with upright bassist and vocalist Jimbo Wallace (1989 to present) and drummer Scott Churilla (1994-2006 and 2012 to present). The Heat has released 11 studio records, beginning with 1990’s Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em — a more straightforward rockabilly collection — before developing a cult following with progressively more amped up and aggressive titles like Liquor in the Front (1994) and It’s Martini Time. (1996). Then after dropping a country album in 2009 (Laughin’ & Cryin’ with the Reverend Horton Heat), Heath followed up with his most recent release, 2014’s REV — an immaculate return to psychobilly. “Me and Jimbo were talking and we said, “Let’s just rock ‘n’ roll, because the country crowd is so wrapped up in whatever corporate Nashville is doing, and corporate Nashville is more interested in rapping and hip-hop than they are with real country now.”
More than anything, the band is dedicated to the road. “Recordings are just a moment in time,” Heath says. “And a lot of people in this industry consider it to be the be-all, end-all. And, you know, really, the art form of music is playing music live — it’s not making a recording.”
Reverend Horton Heat have long since paid their road-warrior dues, clocking in 275 shows a year via an old Chevy van and many a truck stop before knocking that number down to 200. It was only about 10 years ago that the band dropped it down to 120 to 140 shows a year — still a hefty amount of hauling ass across the country. “It still makes us one of the hardest-working bands out there, because we consistently do that,” Heath says. “We don’t stop for a year to make a record or something. We’re just always on the way to go play gigs.”
In fact, the advice Heath would give bands trying to make it in the industry today is to just hit the road. “The essential thing is to realize no matter what record deal you get, you’re gonna have to gut it out on the road,” he says.
“If you can do it in your hometown, you can do it in every other city,” he continues. “You’ve just go to keep going, and it’s hard because when you’re in your hometown you’re playing these great gigs — well, when you go down to the next city over, nobody’s gonna know you. You might be playing for 20 or 30 people, but you’ve got to keep going back. You gotta keep gettin’ in the van, and just go back.”
Do not miss a beat: The lineup also includes hilarious country singer Unknown Hinson, who will sit in with Reverend Horton Heat before singing his own songs, backed by the Heat. Atlanta rock ‘n’ rollers Nashville Pussy (with such lines as “Did I shave my balls for this,” from the track “Why, Why, Why”) and theatrical Russian-American surfabilly-cum-disco-cum-Russian-folk-cum-reggae rockers Igor & the Red Elvises (listen to “Bacon” and “Drinking with Jesus”) will also perform.