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The Reverend Horton Heat's memories of headlining the Hootenanny are getting pretty foggy—lost in a sweltering haze of hard living, hellfire and hillbilly guitar riffs. And considering he rarely seems to take a breath between touring and recording, it's only natural the Rev (born Jim Heath) would lose a few romanticized anecdotes along the way.
Speaking of romance, one memory does stick out: the time Lux Interior, the eccentric late singer of the Cramps, marched up to him after walking offstage in his skintight spandex pants and publicly laid a kiss on him at the testosterone-fueled rockabilly festival.
"Yeah, it pretty much freaked me out. . . . That I remember," says Heat, who took one on the lips from the pasty-skinned front man in 1998, during one of their many co-headlining years at Oak Canyon Ranch. "But in the end, I guess it was kinda cool. And Lux was awesome anyway. So, whatever; I guess it was fine."
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Perhaps it's that dependable slice of unexpected craziness—in addition to his fiery, countrified psychobilly—that crystalizes Heat's role as the tattooed centerpiece of a festival brimming with flame-drenched hot rods, pinup betties and '50s-greaser nostalgia. The Rev—Hootenanny's first headliner back in 1995—is going on his 10th performance at the 18th annual, weekend fling. And even after 25 years' worth of traveling to festivals all over the world, the Dallas-based rocker says the Hootenanny is still the only one that feels like home.
When founder Bill Hardie of Goldenvoice started the event in 1995, the scrappy picnic was only an unorganized sliver of what it is today. Formed as a grassroots alternative to the bigger circuit of fests such as Coachella that took most of the county's big acts out of town for the summer, the Hootenanny's captive audience in the OC rockabilly scene was prime territory for Heat and his band, who've been a hard-charging force since 1985 and a rockabilly staple since their 1990 Sub Pop debut, Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em. They've always been the Hootenanny's meat and potatoes—hard, fast, Americana mayhem melded with punk attitude.
Almost two decades later, the Hootenanny's upgrades and alterations to its technical execution and lineups are substantial. The same fest that has been home to Heat's childhood idols—including Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Buck Owens—has also featured such punk headliners as Dropkick Murphys and now Rancid, who top the 2012 bill. In between is a gambit of psychobilly, southern rock and even some psychedelic surf tunes this year, courtesy of local faves the Growlers.
"It has kind of evolved away from being a straight rockabilly show, and that's probably a good thing," Heat says. "It attracts more people and spreads out the audience base a little bit." Given the Rev's ability to use rockabilly as a platform to jump into various shades of American music, even the Hootenanny's gradual paradigm shift hasn't shaken its very first headliner.
Despite indulging his country side on 2009's Laughin' and Cryin', Heat's focus is back on the hyperextended brand of rockabilly that garnered breakneck cult hits such as "400 Bucks" and "Galaxy 500," built on hurricane licks, skittering punk drums and bassist Jimbo Wallace's thumping fury. The band, joined by former drummer Scott Churilla, is finally set to release a box set of their live show at the Fillmore in San Francisco called 25 to Life, belatedly marking a quarter century together. When we called him, Heat was in the middle of recording scratch tracks for a forthcoming album that is imbued with more of the sweaty, greaser grit that garnered his success.
And while the old-school legacy of the fest is indelibly tied to a niche segment of Orange County's music scene, Heat's take on his vital role as a returning act is centered on spreading the rockabilly gospel to all.
"A lot of those rockabilly bands from the '50s and early '60s, they're kind of the kicking dogs of music," hev says. "People look at blues and jazz as being this beautiful American sound. I think the rockabilly thing should be right there with those genres. The offshoot of both of them created rock & roll, which will always be the wild abandon of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent, the crazy psycho-sounding guys."
Though he neglected to mention Lux Interior—his infamous Hootenanny make-out buddy—on that list, we're guessing that name was probably just stuck on the tip of his tongue.
This article appeared in print as "Home On the Hoot: The Reverend Horton Heat spreads his psychobilly gospel as a 10-year headliner at the Hootenanny."