Reverend Horton Heat: Fear, love, and three decades on the rockabilly road

Still in love with the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Little Richard over 30 years after forming Reverend Horton Heat in 1986, guitarist/vocalist Jim Heath leads a self-professed double life. Half the time, he’s at home in Dallas, Texas, being a husband to his wife of 23 years and a dad to two children, 10 and 15. The other half of the time, he’s burning up rubber and burning up gigs, driving from Texas all over the states and into Canada, spreading the gospel of Heat’s tangled rockabilly sound, a sound braised in surf and swing with a side-car of punk, flame-broiled to well done.

“We play a lot of gigs, but I’m motivated by fear. I’m afraid if we quit doing it that hard, it’ll all go away,” Heath says from the road somewhere in Colorado.

“It” in this case means all the perks that come when a group of master musicians hone their talents with more shows and miles. The band’s song Psychobilly Freakout was featured in an episode of ’90s hit cartoon Beavis and Butt-Head, and the group charted in the U.S. with several of their albums. “It” might also refer to some life-affirming moments, like when Heath met some of his idols, like Lewis.

“He looked at me and said ‘Hello Killer’ (Lewis’s traditional nickname.) He called me killer!” Heath says, laughing. “I’m pretty lucky I got to meet Carl Perkins. He told me stories for about an hour. They were so funny, these cute stories about when he was young, and Johnny Cash took a couple of fireworks and washed them down the toilet and blew out the whole water system on a huge hotel and he had to pay back on that for 25 years. So they were crazy when they were kids, too.”

Those idols were the light that steered Heath off the trendy path and onto one that offered more and better miles in the end. “Starting the band out, I had a vision to have original songs that I wrote and use rockabilly as a platform. We tried some different stuff out here and there, but basically because we do all sorts of different stuff. Frankly, rockabilly was outdated when I started the band back in 1986; it was already something that was kind of passé.

“I focus on the music I like that really spoke to me. I learned that at a young age when all my friends were getting off into all the new bands, I was like, I really like blues, rockabilly. I love the music of that mid-century and I’ve been almost able to formulate my own style around that. A lot of those other bands that my friends liked have faded.”

Heath’s relationship with rockabilly began when that form of music was about 30 years old. Has his perspective changed now that it’s approaching 70?

“One insight from back in the early ’80s when I really was focusing on rockabilly, a lot of the guys from the early ’50s seemed like the old guys. It was cool to talk to the old guys, get insight. I realize now at my age I’m older than they were, from a personal perspective.

“From an artist perspective, it’s still the same. Jerry Lee Lewis’s rock and roll recordings have the same power and energy. Today I feel affirmed in my brain that Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis (Presley) and Carl Perkins would play this wild rock and roll, and Little Richard is quite a bit wilder than anything that’s on the radio now.”

Heath’s also seen positive changes in the music, stating when they first started playing Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats and Tom Yearsley of the Paladins were the only musicians around that played upright bass. “We’d show up at all these gigs and the soundman would just completely freak out that we had this cello there and would say ‘You use the cello on every song?!’ ‘It’s not a cello.’ ‘Well, how do you get your bass sound?’ And now there’s upright bass in every town, so that’s a good thing.”

But while upright bass has advanced, other trappings of the rockabilly lifestyle have retreated. In the mid-’90s, Heath was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Jerry Lee was way out of control and that’s partly what rock and roll is about.”

Over the years and miles, he’s found other things that rock and roll is also about. “It was never, thank God, my personality to be as wild as Jerry Lee Lewis because that’s a whole different thing, and some of the stuff he’s done is just stupid and I think he’d admit that himself today.

“We used to be a 24/7 party and we eventually hit a point where we couldn’t play the gigs well. And (bassist) Jimbo (Wallace) and I had a heart to heart talk about we’re not here to be a party. We’re here to play the songs so everyone else can party.

“We had a long running deal where we would not drink before the show. And that decision has helped the longevity of the band. We wait a little later to start drinking. We have fun.”

In spite of his image as the reverend of rock and roll, complete with wild shows and in the old days, sermons of rock delivered from the stage, Heath was a father before he started the band and always had his family to ground him.

“A lot of rock stars — I’m not staying we’re rock stars — but Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, they seemed to feel the need to keep their party image going 24/7. I’ve had people tell me that Jerry Lee Lewis is Jerry Lee Lewis 24 hours a day.

“I think that’s what happens to a lot of people, they feel obligated to be a rock star 24 hours a day. We’re balanced. I lead a double life completely. When I’m out here on the road I cut loose and have fun, but when I’m home I’m a dad. I’m not very cool when I’m at home.”

Whatever the band’s doing, it’s working for them as Heath was able to put his first child, a daughter who is now 33 with a son of her own, through college. That takes some consistency and some pretty shekels. “I’ve been under the gun to be a dad and be somewhat responsible through this whole Reverend Horton Heat thing. Me, being as wild and dumb as I was, I can’t believe I made it through and I’m still here.”

Though Heath says the toughest part isn’t the traveling (“I’m over that now.”), he says the band used to pull into New York City and say, “Oh, wow, New York City! Wow!” Now he’s more likely to say, “Guys, I’m just gonna stay in (New) Jersey at the hotel.”

“That’s because we’ve been and done so many things. I still have fun in NYC; it’s one of the most interesting cities in the whole world. The other side of that coin is I actually enjoy playing music so much, more than I did when I was young. There’s less pressure.”

He gives an example of the mental pressure the band used to face. “When you’re young, you think, ‘You better play good tonight so they have us back here at the bar.’ Then it morphed into, ‘We better play good because (producer) Jimmy Iovine from Interscope Records is going to be here.’ And that morphed into, ‘We’d better be good because we’re playing a 1,200-seater in San Francisco and we’ve never done that before.’

“And now, I just get up and play, I smile, I hit a chord, my amp sounds great and I just let it rip and have a good time.”

Removed from the pressure of having to prove himself and with three decades and 11 albums behind him, that love for “letting it rip” and the fear that “it” will all stop keep Heath moving forward. He compares his life to being like a vacation where he gets to go to many places, meet people and have fun for a living.

“It was always amazing to me and my family that my father worked at the same company for 35 years. So I know if I can hang on for three more years I’m gonna tie him. I’m gonna have 35 years of RHH. A lot of my friends, when I sit down at dinner with them they say, ‘Now Jim, what are you gonna do when you retire?’ That’s their mindset, they work for these companies and they’re looking for retirement.

“And I say, ‘I’m on the Willie Nelson retirement plan: I’m never gonna retire.’ ”

(Photo courtesy Bryan Regan.)

Reverend Horton Heat play at Dickens Thursday, March 15, and Friday, March 16.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has written about music, horses, books and the environment for over 25 years.