Rockabilly, with its country and R&B influences, is one of the oldest forms of rock 'n' roll. But when Jim Heath transitioned into Reverend Horton Heat, the genre was practically extinct.
"Music fans and music writers in the '80s didn't know what rockabilly was," Heath says. "There were no upright-bass players. Sound guys at clubs would ask, 'Is that a cello?'"
For the past three decades, no one has been a bigger ambassador of the 1950s-obsessed rockabilly culture than Reverend Horton Heat.
Heath grew up in Dallas and at a young age was inspired to pick up the guitar after listening to Johnny Cash, the Beatles, and the Doors. In the late '70s, he found himself intrigued by punk rock. One band in particular turned him on to rockabilly: the Cramps.
"They were playing songs like 'Surfing Bird' and doing Duane Eddy guitar licks," Heath recalls. "It was within the realm of punk rock, but it also sounded like '50s rock 'n' roll."
For the next few years, Heath played in countless rock 'n' roll bands, some blues and country outfits, and even a rockabilly cover band. But in the back of his mind, he always wanted to play original rockabilly tunes. Finally, in 1985, he booked his first gig as a solo act playing his original rockabilly songs. That night, the promoter made a life-altering decision for Heath.
"Before the show, he came onstage and told me: 'Your name is going to be Reverend Horton Heat.' I didn't like the name, but I was a divorced young dad working three jobs and living in a place with roaches, so I said, 'Fine, I'm Reverend Horton Heat now.'"
After working the Texas scene as a solo act, with no one else backing him or his guitar, he built up enough popularity to hire a band. Reverend Horton Heat has rarely left the road since then.
"A lot of what motivates me is fear," he says. "I had ten years straight where we played 250 shows a year. It was because I didn't ever want to have to go back to moving furniture or temping at insurance companies."
Through the decades, he's seen rockabilly go from a tiny subculture to a thriving one. "When we started, only major cities had a rockabilly band. Now just about every town has one band with an upright bass," he says. Part of his mission is recruiting new converts into his preferred twang of music. "When we first went on the road, we were mostly playing punk clubs. But sometimes we'd get booked at blues or country bars. We'd adjust our set list a little, and we'd fit right in."
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This January, Heath plans to put the finishing touches on Reverend Horton Heat's first album in four years. "It should already be out," he admits. "We took off last summer to record, but then our drummer quit." After time spent finding a new drummer, the band completed a few songs that Heath is proud of. "It's got some Louisiana to it and some Roy Orbison in it. There's a lot of crazy noises, some yelling, some screaming. It's zany rock 'n' roll."
The band might play one or two of the new numbers when it performs at Revolution Live Thursday, December 21. And because it's the holidays, expect their rockabilly takes on Christmas classics such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." They'll also continue a tradition of a unique format for their show.
"We play half a set; then we bring someone on the road with us to play a miniset of their material. We did it for Lemmy, for Jello Biafra, for Mike Ness." On this tour, they'll back up western-swing singer Big Sandy for a few songs. "It's a great challenge learning other people's songs. It makes us better musicians."