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Rockabilly Road Warrior
Reverend Horton Heat’s Jim Heath has no plans to cool down
Tearing up the road for a quarter-century now, the Reverend Horton Heat have been signed to Sub Pop and Interscope; collaborated with Willie Nelson and Los Straitjackets; and landed songs in TV commercials, a cult cartoon, the Daytona 500 and a handful of video games. The beloved Texas rockabilly trio count 10 albums and two career retrospectives in their discography, and yet for the band’s titular main man—a.k.a. Jim Heath—records are nothing more than a necessary burden in a life spent touring.
“Oh, yeah,” Heath begins, his throaty voice crackling over the line. “We tour, man. That’s my art form. For me, making an album is not really even a valid art form. It’s more like being in the advertising business. We used to average 200 shows a year. There were several years when we did over 250.” With a hoarse laugh, he adds, “That’s basically playing every night. We’ve slowed down a little, but we still do 120 shows a year.”
Heath’s distaste for recording explains why September’s Laughin’ and Cryin’ With the Reverend Horton Heat was the band’s first album in half a decade. But that’s not the only reason. “One thing was just basic family and life issues,” explains the 50-year-old husband and father. Heath was also eager to break the cycle of releasing a disc every two years, partly because so much new material was frustrating the band’s longtime fans. “By the time they’re warming up to your new album two years later,” he says, “here comes another. It was too much.”
When an act is in it for the long haul, leaving five years between albums doesn’t really matter. And ever since their 1990 debut, Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em (Sub Pop), Heath has maintained a steady pace and consistent strength of output, with certain records leaning more toward surf, swing, garage, punk or country. Upright bassist Jimbo Wallace (onboard since 1989) and drummer Paul Simmons (joined in ’06, succeeding Patrick Bentley) offer ace backing for Heath’s blazing guitar work and welcoming, back-porch vocals.
Besides quality and chops, the one element uniting Horton Heat records and live shows has always been Heath’s bawdy, tongue-in-cheek humor, which comes to the forefront on the aptly titled Laughin’ and Cryin’. “Beer Holder” finds a man showcasing his bulging, suds-filled gut for his bemused wife, while “Just Let Me Hold My Paycheck” is a lament for money once spent on booze and gambling but now handed dutifully over to a spouse. “Death Metal Guys” and “Rural Point of View” are more affectionate than condescending, and “Please Don’t Take the Baby to the Liquor Store” carries the exasperated message “It’s not that kind of bottle he’s been crying for.”
“I’ve had my shot at being serious,” Heath says. “Reverend Horton Heat, in the beginning, was a bit cartoonish; there was a big slap bass and this ’50s jangly stuff. In an effort to not be a novelty act, I wanted to have some serious music. But it seems like fans, especially at our live shows, relate more to the comical aspect. At some point during the making of this album, I decided the serious stuff wasn’t working as well.”
Heath’s initial idea for Laughin’ and Cryin’ was to write a country record in the vein of the genre’s classic era (1955-1965). That’s still audible at the core of the album, which never approaches psychobilly madness. There are even covers of songs made famous by country greats Chet Atkins and Ernest Tubb. But, of course, humor has always played well in country songs. The album’s oddest source of laughs is “Aw, the Humanity,” which reframes the famous reaction to the Hindenburg disaster as a dedication of love.
“I think that’s pretty genius,” brags Heath. “The lyrics came first. It’s one of those things that pops out after too many Jägermeister shots.”
But is there a line between getting audiences to laugh along with a song and penning something that’s dismissed as an outright novelty? “Certainly, Reverend Horton Heat has been dismissed a lot,” he admits. “Honestly, it’s hard to tell what’s going to work. I could spend a lot of hours writing a song, and then the song I came up with on the way to 7-Eleven works and lasts for 20 years. You never really know.”
Following a pair of shows at House of Blues on the last two days of this year, Reverend Horton Heat will make a few more West Coast appearances before embarking on an 11-date visit to Colorado, which Heath calls “our ski-bunny tour.” Beyond that, there’s already a European tour booked for early next year. Not that Heath minds; despite being a devoted family man well into middle age, he can’t imagine ever retiring from the road.