Reverend Horton Heat frontman Jim Heath is content with his career thus far. After 28 years of bringing an unabashed celebration of sex, booze and hard living to venues across the country, Heath and his band have cultivated a diverse and loyal fan base.
Few rock ‘n’ roll bands last a decade, let alone more than a quarter-century—especially with a rigorous tour schedule. In the band’s early days, it wasn’t uncommon for them to play 300 gigs a year. These days, though, the group only tours about one-third of the year—and the current tour is bring the band to The Date Shed this weekend.
“We were always a party band. … In every town, people were waiting there to party with us. The next night would be really difficult to play music,” said Heath. “We knew if we kept this up, we were going to die. So we had a band meeting and decided we are here to play music, and we cut out the partying.”
Heath is feted by peers and loved by fans for his ability to make his guitar cry the blues and wail rock ‘n’ roll with blistering, reckless abandon. He loves extremes: sudden drops from loud to soft, or a sweet, sustained guitar riff followed by a jolt of speed.
Heath absorbed all kinds of music growing up and was influenced early on by Johnny Cash, The Cramps and The Blasters, along with blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King and Buddy Guy.
“I took a few lessons, but what really worked for me was just listening and trying to copy what I heard,” Heath said. “I dropped the needle about a million times until I could imitate what I heard.”
When he started Reverend Horton Heat in the mid-1980s, Heath didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a specific musical genre. Instead, he used rockabilly as a foundation from which to build an original mix of surf guitar, swing, country, blues and up-tempo rock ‘n’ roll.
Spawned from the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, the band would play in the punk-y Twilight Room one night, and around the corner in a blues bar the next. Further along, RHH opened for Johnny Cash and, two weeks later, played with Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.
Today, the trio serves up a hearty mix of rock swagger at a surf-rock speed, topped with a dash of blues and some countrified melodies. The band released the two-CD-and-DVD box set 25 to Life in 2012, and recently announced it signed with Victory Records and plans to release a new album in 2013.
The Rev is currently flanked by upright bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla. Ultimately, though, it’s Heath’s original compositions and guitar skills that drive the band.
“I’m an electric-guitar player, and I hear all instruments in a song.” Heath explained. “So I come up with the whole arrangement before I have a song for the band to work up. I am very focused on the beat.”
Heath also experiments with a variety of guitar techniques.
“One technique I worked on my whole career is mimicking pedal-steel and steel-guitar licks with my guitar. The way you hold three notes, and then bend one of them will give you a kind of pedal steel guitar swell effect,” Heath said.
Another signature move calls for Heath to play lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously—a technique he uses to fill out the trio’s sound which he’s named the “hurricane.”
“I play a drum note on the low end while I am playing the strings on the top end. The key to that is how I mute the strings,” said Heath.
But Heath’s aptitudes aren’t confined to the technical realm. Lyrically, few topics are taboo for RHH. For example, the song “One Time for Me” is about female masturbation, while the track “Slow” reveals the band’s familiarity with female physiology: “It took a long time but I learned what they like / Once you’ve learned my lesson it’s like ridin’ a bike … Drivin’ real slow gets you home pretty fast / Keep a cool head gonna make it last.”
On “Cowboy Love,” a country tune in which Heath pines for the attentions of a tall, black, gay cowboy, he sings: “That’s why each night by the campfire / I thank my lucky stars above / For inter-racial cowboy homo kind of love.” And in the fast-tempo “Big Little Baby,” Heath pens a love song for his tall girlfriend, whose “heart is as big as her feet are long”: “Well, I got a sweet baby who’s six foot tall / Well, she’s a full grown woman who’s got it all.”
On stage, Heath has it all—mingling anarchy, virtuosity, deep blues and a hammy guitar playing shtick that keep all eyes focused on him.
Whether he’s singing with gentle menace or bending new curves into a blues note, Heath is a master of tension and release. It’s during a live show that bona fide Reverend Horton Heat fans are born. And Heath says fans are everything to the band.
“We party with the people who come to see us at the show. … To me, music is an art form that involves getting up there and playing in front of people,” Heath said.
The Reverend Horton Heat plays at 8 p.m., Friday, March 8, at The Date Shed, 50725 Monroe St. in Indio; $25. Also on the bill are Deke Dickerson, and Wade Crawford and the Country Trash. For tickets or more information, call 775-6699, or visit www.dateshedmusic.com. A version of this piece appeared originally in the Boise Weekly.