by Jason Walsh, special to Louisville.com
Nearly two decades ago, a fiery force emerged from the roadhouses of Texas creating a unique country-fried punkabilly sound that bands to this day continue to imitate. However, the Reverend Horton Heat is the originator and the real deal, and has toured incessantly since the days of their early beginnings in the Lone Star State. Currently wrapping the last two months of this year's tours with Nashville Pussy and Reckless Kelly, the band will be coming to Jim Porters in Louisville on November 20. Jim Heath, a.k.a. "The Rev," does not plan to pull in the reigns any time soon and will continue to hit the road hard.
I caught up with the Reverend in Philadelphia the weekend following the election and had a chance to talk about the tour, the history of the band, his motivation to continue after all these years, as well as politics, economics, and yes, the gold standard even.
JW: How you doing today?
RHH: I'm doing O.K. We just actually pulled up here in Philly where we're playing tonight.
JW: Where you guys playing in Philly tonight?
RHH: We're playing, I think it's called the Theater of the Living Arts.
JW: I grew up in the Philly area. Is that near the University of the Arts downtown? Are you guys downtown?
RHH: No, it's kind of in this little section. It's like an old theater. I don't know what you call this part of town. There's a lot of shops. A lot of little boutique shops. Clothing stores...hold on let me see. I can tell you what street it's on.
JW: Sounds like South Street.
RHH: Yeah. South Street.
JW: Yeah, that's kind of like Philadelphia's bohemian SOHO-like section. That's where all the punk shows used to be back in the days. So, let's get into this. First, I read about how the name Reverend Horton Heat came to be, but for some of the readers and fans who don't know that story, tell me how that came to pass.
RHH: Well, I was a sound guy at a kind of like art gallery type club. It almost really wasn't even a club. We did a lot of bands and stuff. The guy who owned it had nicknames for everybody and he started calling me Horton and I'm not exactly sure why. But my last name is Heath. Anyway, I was living there. He had these little rooms built up around it and I was living up there and he heard me playing and singing and he said he was going to give me a gig. So, I said O.K. and he said just be up here a week from Thursday. He was actually opening a new place across the street, that's where it was going to be, and so I showed up and was setting up my amp in the daytime and nobody was there. He walks up on stage and he said "you're stage name is going to be Reverend Horton Heat, O.K." And I said "NO!" (laughs...) I said "Reverend?" I said, "Whoa, uh-uh, no, no. Uh-uh.." Little did I know that he'd made flyers and posters and there was actually a good little crowd the very first gig I played. There's people there and they were enjoying my songs and it was like my own music, my own songs, and they came up and said "Reverend, that was really good. Reverend...reverend." And, I was so poor, I was living in a warehouse at the time, so I was glad to have anything, you know (laughs...) What I tell people is I'm glad he didn't say, "you're stage name is going to be dog dookie O.K." (laughter ensues...)
I would have had to run with that which would have been quite a bit more embarrassing than Reverend Horton, so...
JW: So, pretty much from that day forward the name stuck?
JW: So, I also read that later on he became a preacher and came to you and said, "hey, maybe you should drop the 'Reverend.'"
RHH: Yeah, he did. "Yeah, you should drop this whole 'Reverend' thing," and I said "thanks to you I should get it tattooed on my forehead." I'll be the Reverend for the rest of my life now. And he was like "that wasn't, that wasn't me." He's a good guy though. We're still friends. And actually I owe him a phone call, he called me last week. The CD we did called "Revival," a bunch of the first copies had DVDs in them and part of it is an interview where I sit down with him and me talking about it.
JW: What was it like 20 years ago? You're kind of just plugging away down there in Texas. What was it like growing up playing the Texas circuit and around Dallas? It had to be kind of tough.
RHH: It was tough to a degree but Reverend Horton Heat basically started getting offers from all over the place. The good thing about us is that the first thing Russell had, where we were playing gigs for him, it was kind of punk rock kids crossed over with eclectic music fans, crossed over with hippies. So, we were able to bounce from that scene over to the blues club scene and from that scene over to more, straight-ahead music clubs. So, we were able to get a lot of gigs, which was good. You know, I mean it was hard because we wouldn't get gigs that paid a lot of money, so what we did was we played just every night. The first years of Reverend Horton Heat, we were playing 275 shows a year.
JW: So what you're saying is the style of music that you guys do really does transcend all the different genres and groups of music and interests of music. You know, you got your people that are into punk rock, people that are into rockabilly, it kind of covers a lot of ground.
RHH: Yeah, that's kind of been one thing that really helps us. Of course, you know, back then, there wasn't rockabilly. That was kind of a new neo-eclectic term that people kind of thrown out there. Of course, there were some bands doing it, but by and large everywhere we went rockabilly wasn't something that people even knew what it was. (laughs..)
JW: So, in a lot of cases, like in the early days, when you guys would show up and do your thing, people would be like "what the hell was that?"
RHH: Yeah..yeah...absolutely. Music writers were asking me, "what is rockabilly? Is it like Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show?" I was going, "man, you're supposed to be a music writer guy." (far more laughter...) Elvis Presley, Sun Records, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. That's one thing that kind of drew me into the rockabilly is that it had short bursts of popularity in the mid-50s and then pretty much was done by the early 60s and it kind of fell off the map. It was kind of a little bit like the kicking dog of all genres of music and to me that seemed really unfair.
JW: When you first started doing this, now its twenty years later, did you think or have any concept at all that you still would be doing this and as hardcore as you are now after all these years?
RHH: Wow, you know, no, I really didn't. But I will say that when I first started getting interested in music what fascinated me more than the one-off, the whatever the band of the day, the style of the day was, I was a little more fascinated by career artists that kind of did what I'm now doing as well. BB King, Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb, people like that had long careers that transcended any record deal, any hit record, anything else. To me, I could actually hear that realness in the music that they made. So, to me it made a lot more sense to try to be something that would kind of transcend time rather than something that had some kind of a current sound that five years from now isn't going to sound current (laughs...)
JW: Is that part of what's kept you interested is the fact that you're really doing what it is you love to do, the style of music that you love to do, as opposed to putting out records that labels want? Like I want you to sound like this, or I want you do this.
RHH: Right. Oh yeah, I think that's been the key to our success is that we're all of a sudden doing this type of music in the middle of a punk rock club or a hippy club or a blues club or a straight rock'n roll metal club. It's pretty high energy stuff, you know, a lot of fast tempos. I don't really know where I'm going with all of this except, you know man, it's just kind of what I do. (laughs...) I can't stop and I don't have time to stop an evaluate it too much.
JW: It comes natural. You wake up everyday and this is what you do.
RHH: Yeah, exactly (laughs...)
JW: So, how's the last year been? What have you been up to? A lot of time on the road?
RHH: We've been backing it down quite a bit from what we used to do. We averaged 200 shows a year the whole time, the whole career. Now, we've backed it down to say about 110-120 shows a year. So that's still a lot though, I mean we're still one band that's really out there a lot. Not quite as crazy as it used to be but we still get to feel like we're getting out there and playing a lot of music.
JW: You guys going to be recording anytime soon? "We Three Kings" (2005) was the last thing you put out?
RHH: Yup, that was the last thing.
JW: Are you looking to do a new record?
RHH: We're looking at trying to do some kind of recording. I've got a bunch of songs we need to kind of try and work up. We've worked up a few songs, but then we keep getting gigs. (laughter...)
JW: It's tough to get in the studio when you got shows to do.
RHH: Yeah, yeah, we keep booking these gigs. Our problem right now is kind of good. We book these tours, you know, because we want to play music and we want to work. It's not just us, it's our crew guys and everybody, make some money to keep the ball rolling, if you will. But then, we get these calls to do these other gigs and you know, we can't turn those down either (laughs..) Yeah, we play a lot of gigs. But at some point, I think we're going to be kicking out a new album really, really soon if we could get five solid days of rehearsal, maybe ten solid days in the studio, we could have a new album.
JW: Just a matter of getting in there.
RHH: Getting in there, yeah, and our drummer Paul lives in Nashville so we're having to work around that, not having the drummer living in the same town. Easily, just get together for a couple hours every day. You know, we're going to have to cram it all together and have him come to us, or us go to him or something like that along those lines.
JW: You know, coming into the new year, I see you guys have a break around the holidays, but are right back out on the road after that. With the way the economy is now, with a lot of bands that are professionals, this is how they make a living, but it costs so much more now to do it. Is this a problem you've been running into?
RHH: This particular tour we're on, I really think we're seeing the economy hit people. A couple of the shows the crowds have been light. Actually, the funny thing is that since the election this week, all of a sudden it's picked back up, so I think a lot of people were just kind of like into the election and that's kind of a done deal now. One of my hobbies is I like to read financial stuff that's off the beaten path that people don't know about. I imagine we'll just attempt to go along like we always did but I'm afraid that we got a big financial catastrophe that's right around our country's corner.
JW: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean everybody's already feeling the effects of it. Layoffs are happening left and right and a lot of people are like "yeah, we have this new president" but things aren't going to change instantly, the economy is not going to get better overnight regardless of who won.
RHH: That's the thing about this election that really bothered me. Neither one of the candidates was really talking about any issues that matter to me, so I'm kind of depressed. We owe China trillions of dollars. We owe Russia, Iran, all these countries. We're in debt. So when you talk about "let's spread the wealth," my thing is "what wealth?" and it doesn't seem like anyone is taking any steps to tell the American people the bad news. So, in other words, to get elected they'll say, "we'll get in there and we'll fix the problem and it's not going to be easy." My thing is "well, let me tell you this, no, it's going to be impossible to fix the problem." I read all this financial stuff. I read stuff about how probably in the early part of the 20th century, getting off the gold standard, we're probably paying for that now almost a hundred years later, so it could be a hundred year nightmare that we're about to have to get back.
JW: Yeah, and people have said "yeah, it's going to take a couple years" and this, that, and the other thing, and yeah, you're saying a hundred years. The other issue also with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of people are like "we have this new president and everybody's going to be coming home." Come January, that's not going to be the case. Nobody's going to be coming home. You know, that's not going to be the way it happens.
RHH: Yeah, that's a tough deal, you know. I was reading a good article about the gold standard again last night and it was very interesting. Getting off the gold standard and just letting central banks print money to finance things was just really the root of war. It's the way Germany first started World War I and the way Hitler financed World War II. It's like money is not the root of all evil, monetary policy is the root of all evil (laughs...) What I think is going to happen is that we're about to have to pay back our debts and I really have a lot of faith in the American people. And I think that you're seeing that already, and I mean, see you're getting me started on my hobby now (laughs...) and I'm getting WAY off music now. But no, I think the wildcard in all this is that all of a sudden that light bulb in people's head, they click on and they say "DING! Wow, instead of taking my credit card and going to Coach and buying a thousand dollar handbag maybe I should go to Salvation Army and find one even cooler for $2.50." You know what I'm saying.
JW: And a lot of people are scaling back now, going to thrift stores, salvage yards, and economy grocery stores. But, yeah we've definitely gotten off music (and yet again...laughter...)
RHH: Yeah, yeah.
JW: Back to it. What can folks expect when they come to see you guys out on tour now?
RHH: We've got a couple surprises in the cover song department and the we're going to have at least one or two brand new songs, that we've never played live until just last week.
JW: So, some good surprises for people coming out to see you?
RHH: Yeah, yeah, we've got some good surprises in the cover song department. We usually never have to do cover songs and purposely avoid it so we can promote our own music, but we're kind of in between albums right now so we got some unusual cover songs going. That, and like I said, either one or two brand new songs. The encore will feature Blaine from Nashville coming and singing "Ace of Spades" with us.
JW: Very nice. That I'd like to see.
RHH: Yeah, it is pretty trippy.