By Adrian Chamberlain, Featured Writer, Times Colonist
The musicians who most influenced Reverend Horton Heat years ago were far from famous. “These were local guys who could work a crowd so good,” says Heat, a.k.a. Jim Heath.
In the guise of Reverend Horton Heat, Heath has led a rockabilly/psychobilly trio for a quarter of a century.
To commemorate the achievement, the band is set to release 25 to Life, a DVD/CD package offering a show at San Francisco’s Fillmore and interviews.
With his trademark slicked-back hair and Western-style suits, Heath is renowned for his ferocious singing and guitar playing.
And – as befitting a faux reverend – he lobs the occasional mock sermon.
Chatting from his Dallas home in a Texan drawl, he recalled being impressed as a young man by a bar-band singer who liked to joke around on stage.
“He wasn’t afraid to do all this crazy stuff right off the cuff. But somehow, he could just turn straight around and sing a George Jones ballad and really
make it emotional and a powerful thing,” Heath said.
“He wasn’t afraid to do his shtick. That melds over into what I do.”
Like such early, unsung heroes, Heath is a character and a half. Other early inspirations were the wildeyed rockers of the 1950s, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Country music also factored in.
When he was a kid, an older cousin returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam played Johnny Cash on the tape deck of his new Camaro.
Heath loved that. In his mid teens, he got into the Chicago blues of the late 1940s and 1950s, artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. That, in turn, got Heath interested in rockabilly.
At the beginning, his vision was to play authentic ’50s-style rockabilly. But rather than doing covers, like other rockabilly bands, Heath wanted to perform his own material. Early Reverend Horton Heat songs reveal a tongue in cheek sensibility, with titles such as Eat Steak and Marijuana.
“We had this little rockabilly niche in a world of hair-metal bands. It was pretty much not fashionable. But in a way, that helped because it made it something different, you know.”
Later, Heath and his band (currently Jimbo Wallace on upright bass and drummer Scott Churilla) drifted closer to psychobilly, a genre that fuses punk rock and rockabilly.
American psychobilly pioneers The Cramps left an impression on Heath – he’s said to have experienced a musical epiphany while attending a Cramps show in the late 1970s.
Mid-century architecture, design and fashion are another big influence.
Heath says he’s cut down his collecting, but back in the day, he and his wife lived in a vintage house crammed with 1950s stuff: Eames chairs, retro pottery and other artifacts.
Why the ’50s fixation? Heath admits he “can’t exactly” explain the appeal. It has something to do with the optimism of the decade, coming after America’s
struggles with the Depression and the Second World War. “Beginning in the late ’40s, you know, you had an explosion of stuff. Prosperity. I think that prosperity also breeds an explosion of ideas and all sorts of things.”
Heath’s interest in the 1950s extends to his car. He owns a grey-purple 1932 Ford hot-rod, the sort of wheels any ’50s teen would have lusted after.
“It’s a pretty intense car,” he said. “It’s got an interior that was done in Austin by one of the best guys going.”
When not hot-rodding or gigging, Heath hones his guitar chops. Rather than focusing on learning a specific lick, he strives to discover new musical “concepts.”
For example, Heath uses a technique he calls The Hurricane. This means muting bass strings on the fretboard with his thumb, allowing him to create a droning bottom-end sound over which he plays lead guitar lines.
As for keeping the same band going for 25 years, well, Heath isn’t one for resting on his laurels.
When a reporter congratulated him, the forwardthinking rocker said: “I don’t like that. I don’t like to think back. I don’t want to stop and look back. It’s really crazy that’s it’s been that long, you know.”
Source: Times Colonist