Feature: Wednesday, April 11, 2002
The End Is (Not) Near

Repentance is futile in Reverend Horton Heat’s wild, wild world.

More than a dozen years after Reverend Horton Heat began spreading its gospel, the Dallas trio is still finding new things to say about drivin’ and drinkin’ and fightin’ and fuckin’. Now hammering its point home on a series of five- and six-week tours, the band’s old black magic seems oblivious to time. By continually tweaking their bombastic psychobilly, Reverend Horton Heat has managed to avoid becoming a footnote under the same “novelty” entry as Squirrel Nut Zippers or Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.

Although much of their music is drawn from the rockabilly/swing-nation movement, as evidenced on 1996’s It’s Martini Time, Reverend Horton Heat missed out on the international overnight acclaim that accompanied the fad — and also on the inevitable loss of momentum that would have followed. Eight years after their major-label debut on Interscope, Reverend Horton Heat seems to be on a mission to prove they still have the fire that packed Deep Ellum clubs as far back as the late 1980s.

Lucky 7 (Artemis Records) is the Reverend’s latest book of sermons, a 14-song primer on the things that Jim Heath — the Rev himself — holds nearest and dearest: cars, carousing, and his good friend and longtime bass player, Jimbo. Like their previous seven albums, this one is a high-octane rockabilly party that integrates surf and psycho-twang into its rock-solid frame.

Even though the song, and much of the sound, has remained the same since Reverend Horton Heat formed, new influences are perpetually catching the band’s ears and eventually infiltrating that old-style rockabilly. Touches of punk and beer-soaked country coexist in a sort of jangly comfort with roadhouse blues; at times the band comes off like a mature Green Day for the NASCAR crowd.

“I like to write songs and I love to play,” says Heath. “As soon as I finish an album, and there’s no pressure on me to write or record, I start focusing on the fundamentals. I might shore up my music theory, work on some ragtime, things like that. Next thing you know, I get a new idea for a song.”

Having spent most his life performing, Heath says he still gets a kick out of taking the stage and making music, and he isn’t about to let time or trends change that. Thriving on a message of sin and substance abuse, Reverend Horton Heat manages to rock circles around bands half their age. With the aforementioned Jimbo Wallace on bass and Scott Churilla on drums, the guys, although older, hold to a rigorous touring schedule that includes some 200 gigs a year.

The band’s Y2K album, Spend a Night in the Box, prompted some critics to ponder in print whether the good Reverend had lost his edge. Lucky 7 is a middle-finger response to any doubting Thomases. Rocking as hard as any of the band’s previous releases, Lucky 7 is something of a revival of the old Reverend, a juiced-up slab of innuendo and carnal inspiration.

“The adrenaline still hits every time, and that fuels you,” says Heath, explaining the crazed energy that accompanies him on stage. “I like high-energy music, and then you feed off the crowd. It’s like an addiction. It really gets you going.”

And it keeps them going, according to Heath, even after the bus has pulled back on the highway and the boys are sleeping in their bunks. It is what they live for, and contrary to many artists’ complaints, the life really isn’t that hard.

“Pulling it off, making your band successful — that’s the hard part,” says Heath. “Getting up on stage every night? That’s easy. That’s fun. Our focus has always been to enjoy ourselves and do well as a band. We’ve done that. We’re still doing that.”

They’ve done it well enough to survive the house-cleaning of their label, Interscope, and to create a thriving, self-sufficient cottage industry. Now on the indie New York-based Artemis Records, Reverend Horton Heat is a do-it-yourself adventure that supports three musicians and a “little bitty crew” in a small bus. Heath says much of the band’s survival is based on the members’ refusal to let a label dictate their careers.

“So many bands today have this idea that, ‘We gotta get signed,’ and that’s really not what they need,” says Heath. “Being a recording artist is not an art form. Recording artists get too wrapped up in what the label is doing; they lose sight of the music. You should never let some silly little record label tell you how to play your music.”

That belief system is built as much on personal experience as on other folks’ history.

“When I was getting into music, my heroes were blues guys whose whole careers were about playing their whole lives and getting ripped off by the record companies,” he says. “We never really fell for that. There were times when we got our hopes up,” about having a hit, “because there always is a chance that something like that could happen. But that’s never why we were making the music.”

In an age of belly-baring teen divas and a handful of multinational conglomerates’ Nazi-like control of the airwaves, Reverend Horton Heat isn’t looking for radio airplay or mass exposure. Instead, they do it as they have from the beginning, one show, one album at a time. The encouraging news is that the audience continues to grow, even as many of the original fans turn their interest to more domestic concerns.

“A lot of the audience for what we’re going for is the 18-to-28-year-old crowd,” says Heath. “A lot of people in their late 20s and early 30s start losing interest in music, start settling down and having families, so we’re seeing our crowd turn over. But they’re still coming out; we’re getting new audiences every time. That’s really all we need to keep this happening.”

It’s something they can make happen indefinitely, and like the blues legends he worshipped from the very beginning, Heath sees music as his past, present, and future, regardless of what the industry does.

“I knew when I was 14 or 15 years old that I wanted to play,” he says. “Not long after that, I realized I could be in a band, and people would pay money to hear me. There’ve been points when it got a little confusing, but we worked hard and hung in there. In some ways, we’re still doing that. And I think we always will.”

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