The Reverend Horton Heat kicked off psychobilly in the United States. The Dallas based trio formed in 1985 and built a strong cult following during the ’90s thanks to their constant touring.
While the world of psychobilly is known for its showmanship and twisted sense of humor, Reverend Horton Heat managed to update the psychobilly sound, rocking it as hard as any punk band. Most of their lyrics were a celebration of sex, drugs, booze and cars. And true to their name, their concerts often featured mock sermons in the rural revivalist preacher style.
Their music though is really a mixture of country, punk, big band, swing and rockabilly, all played loud and with a huge amount of energy. Over their 20-odd year music career they’ve achieved notable success within not just the genre, but across mainstream America with many of their songs being featured in video games and commercials.
The current members are founding member, Jim “Reverend Horton” Heath on guitar, Jimbo Wallace on the double bass and Paul Simmons on drums.
Reverend Horton Heat – the man – was born James C. Heath in Corpus Christi, TX. In his early days he played in local rock cover bands around the area. He eventually moved to Dallas and married a former band mate from Sweetbriar and together they had a child. They gave up the rock and roll life and decided to get “real jobs”. However Heath was still using the PA system from Sweetbriar to earn some extra money, doing the sound for a number of local bands. It wasn’t long though that one of the bands talked him into getting up and playing. Heath decided then and there to form his own band and came up with Reverend Horton Heat as an ode to Johnny Horton and using the shortened version of his last name, Heath.
It didn’t take long before Heath started revamping his sound and moved into rock and punk venues. By the fall of 1990 a bidding war ensued between Hollywood’s XXX Records and Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. His good friend at the time, Charlie Ray managed to secure a two record deal with an option for three more, with Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop.
During those days Reverend Horton Heat managed to amass a significant underground following and ended up signing a major label deal with Interscope in 1994. With extra money thanks to extra big label bucks, Heath started ratcheting up his hell-raising lifestyle that he often sang about along with the temporary worsening of a drinking problem.
Horton Heat came back in 1996 with It’s Martini Time, an album that featured several nods to the swing and lounge revival scenes emerging at that time. That lead to the title track becoming a minor hit and the album became their first to make it into the Top 200. It was at this time that Heath also made his small-screen acting debut thanks to his on-stage preacher act, earning him a guest spot on the dramaHomicide: Life on the Street. The following year he appeared on the Drew Carey Show.
The band’s final major label album, Space Heater was released in 1998. After being dropped from Interscrope, Sub Pop released a 24-song best of compilation, Holy Roller, in 1999 featuring the band’s entire output until that point.
Heath continued to tour and recorded a number of albums for smaller labels, eventually signing his last big deal with Yep Roc in 2003.
These days Jim Heath says he’s had something of an epiphany. He’s taken his music back to what he calls some of his funnier, country-tinged crowd pleasers – “a trip back to a time before slick, over-produced country became the norm – a time when outlaws wrote songs about being without a pot to piss in-or at least about psycho exboyfriends and deadbeat girlfriends that spend your paycheck faster than you can say Lone Star.”
Heath says his latest album Laughin’ and Cryin’ is a record full of country-heavy tunes about bad habits, well meaning but clueless husbands, ever expanding beer-guts and, well, Texas.
“I really wanted to capture the feelings of recordings of the late ’50s, early ’60s,” Heath said of the songs on the new record.
Heath, who personally loves good old, mid-20th century country music, cautions that the record was not born out of a desire to introduce his audience to a new set of influences-it’s just meant to have a little fun. Besides, he warns, his next record may just be a set of “avant-garde versions of Swahili folk songs done on homemade instruments.”
“Never say never,” Heath said.