Jim Heath, who fronts the band The Rev. Horton Heat and also uses the "Horton Heat" moniker as a stage name, is one unique artist. Much like that proverbial elephant and the blind men, what he is at any given moment, depends entirely upon which side you're looking at him. He is enraptured by all things '50s, especially car culture, rock & roll, and country music. He's a traditional country guy one minute, and a raving rockabilly cat the next. He also throws in a little blues and washes it all down with a big dose of humor.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts)
His music has also been labeled psychobilly, but that's a misnomer. The group did record a song titled "Psychobilly Freakout," but that was just one song, and not any sort of artistic statement of purpose.
One thing you need to know about the good Reverend is that he is not a morning person. When interviewing him, the conversation was slow and labored to begin, but really picked up intensity toward the end (the caffeine probably helped). We spoke with Jim just before his group was set to play at a Costa Mesa, California tattoo festival.
: We'll get into the songs, but since this is a tattoo festival, let's start with this: do you have any tattoos?
: Yeah. I have one tattoo I got a long time ago. I have a ton of friends who are tattoo artists.
: But you're not big into the tattoos?
: You know, I like the artwork and everything. It's just that the way my life was proceeding, I was always in the situation where I couldn't really afford to do something like that to myself. I really appreciate the artwork. We do a lot of tattoo festivals.
It's kind of a long story. The thing about me that's really different is that I was a young daddy. I had a daughter when I was 22 years old. I'd already been in bands that made money, so my life was always really opposite than how everybody else lived. So when I was 22, I had a daughter, I was back in college and not playing in a band. All of a sudden I had a daughter to support, and I didn't have any way to do it except to play music.
So most people, when they do the responsible thing, they quit the band and go to college. And for me, the responsible thing was to quit college and go back to the band. So my life has been opposite.
So I've been a daddy this whole time all the way through, and now I've got more kids, younger and everything, that whether I want tattoos or not, I have mouths to feed. Back when I wasn't famous... I'm not famous now, but back when nobody gave a crap bout Rev. Horton Heat, I would have to pay for those tattoos myself. So there's a balance there: do I pay my child support or do I get a tattoo?
: I read that your name is inspired partially by the old singer Johnny Horton. What does his music mean to you?
Johnny Horton was a country/rockabilly singer in the '50s and '60s that gained fame by singing semi-folk, saga songs that were instrumental in powering the historical ballad craze. Perhaps his biggest song was "Battle of New Orleans
." Written by Jimmy Driftwood, it won the 1960 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording. Other significant Horton recordings included "North to Alaska," which was used in John Wayne's movie of the same name, and "Sink the Bismarck
." In addition to his country success, Horton is also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
: Well, I like Johnny Horton, "Honky Tonk Man" and then all of his great commercial hits. I loved "North to Alaska" and "Battle of New Orleans" and all that stuff. But I got the nickname Horton from a club owner, so there are actually other artists besides Johnny Horton. Sam Phillips was the guy that owned Sun Studios in Memphis, which was called Memphis Recording Service at the time. He's the guy that had Sun Records in Memphis and discovered Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich, tons of other great artists that are kind of under the radar, and I was very influenced by that record label and a lot of the mid-century rockabilly guys, from Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll trio, Eddie Cochran.
But Johnny Horton was one of the great all time country artists who actually did start out in that era - a lot of those country artists were rockabilly. They were one day ripping the blues and country, and doing the rock & roll thing. And a lot of people don't realize that a lot of the great country artists, like Marty Robbins, were rock & rollers. Conway Twitty was a rock & roller, George Jones had rock & roll songs.
: Yes, he did.
: I'm inspired by everything from that era, not just rockabilly. I really loved Mr. Henry Mancini and all the mid-century Americans, the greats, the singers and standards. Nelson Riddle was one of the greatest arrangers ever, and not just music. I like the cars and the culture. It was a great time in American history when America won World War II and it just seemed like America was the new superpower of the world, and not some place like Russia or some Soviet communist country or some evil dictator like Stalin or Hitler. It seemed like now that America was Number One that the world would be a lot better off, and it was. People knew it and the '50s was a carefree type of a time, except for the fact that there was the need for another nuclear bomb. But there was a real awakening at that time of freedom in an automotive world. Cars and motorcycles were more readily available to average kids and young people. You know, that's why I love all that stuff. I love new century American furniture, I love new century American architecture and that lifestyle. It was an awesome time. Everything was coming together: computers were coming; industries, they basically knew that they could do cell phones, they just didn't know when or how it would happen. But they knew all about all that was coming together back then.
: Are you happy with the label "psychobilly" to describe your music?
: Not really, no. We're not really psychobilly. Because a psychobilly is a type of music, there's some great American and worldwide great psychobilly bands, but it's basically something that was started in Europe in the late '70s, early '80s. With rockabilly, the rockabilly guys that were more punk rock than maybe straight rockabilly would have been. Back when I was first starting out, we were like a rockabilly band that was just a little bit more turned up and a little bit more aggressive, because we were writing our own songs. But I wrote a song about 1989 called "Psychobilly Freakout."
And at that time a lot of the punk rock people and kids in America and a lot of the alternative fans in America never heard of psychobilly, they didn't know about all those bands: The Meteors, Guana Batz, and Batmobile. But they heard where I was doing heavy hitting psychobilly, where I really hadn't, I just had a song called "Psychobilly."
Pyschobilly is a fusion genre that throws together a little punk, some rock and a whole lot of rockabilly. There are also subgenres of it, such as surfabilly and gothabilly. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as extreme rockabilly that plays traditional '50s rock with a devil-may-care attitude.
But a large part of that, too, it's because we got successful. We were one of the first bands like us to get out there on a major label, and that was pretty cool.
I don't hate it altogether, and I embrace it to some extent, but I don't really want to be a psychobilly band. Listen to a band called The Brains - that's a psychobilly band. My band will get country, we play some hard, aggressive, almost punk rock stuff that, I guess, could be considered psychobilly. But we do things that most psychobilly bands don't often do. So we'll get bluesy, and we'll get a little jazzy, we'll get a little country.
Artists don't want to be pigeonholed, but I would rather be pigeonholed into rockabilly, because that was really my thing, just being a band that tried to be an ultimate '50s type of a thing, which currently is what psychobilly is.
: Let's talk about some specific songs. One of them that I really like is "That's Showbiz." And I'm wondering if there was a particular experience that kind of inspired you to write that song.
: No. Quite honestly, I dreamed that song. I dreamed the whole song from start to finish. That's only happened to me once or twice at other times that I dreamed a song.
It woke me up at like four in the morning. I'd dreamed about some kind of MC at some really crappy little lounge bar, like a little old-style cabaret or lounge or strip bar, some kind of seedy little place where they had this MC guy.
From start to finish, I dreamed it. But then I woke up, it was like four in the morning, I was like, "Oh, man, I've got to write this down." So I woke up and I went in on the couch and I just started writing and writing and writing and writing. It is kind of a long recitation, more than a song; it's me talking. There are a lot of words and I sat there for like an hour and a half writing and writing and writing. My girlfriend came out and said, "What are you doing?" [Laughing] I said, "I'll tell you later."
I went back to bed, and the next day I looked at it, going, Wow, this is going to be something here. Then I got my guitar and I tried to play the little riff that I remembered from my dream, and it's like (singing), "da da dada duh duh." So I'm, like, 'Okay, there you go.'
: Did you remember what you ate the night before so you could dream more songs?
: [Laughs] No, I don't remember. But that was back when I smoked a lot of cigarettes.
: What about the song "Generation Why," what can you tell me about that one?
: Oh, yeah. "Generation Why." That song is really an anti-label song, because one thing that I'm really against are eggheaded academic people who look at society and try to make a judgment about who's doing what and why. They have these little office jobs or they're in these little universities, and they don't really know what it takes to do something in this world. They're just a bunch of people that never got out of college. Then they can put labels: "Oh, this Generation X, they're the ones with their sloppy blue jeans and flannel shirts that all wear Doc Martin boots." I'm going, what the hell? You're talking about people here. I'm tired of newspapers and radio and TV looking at the masses. What will the masses do? Oh, yeah, okay. Go back to your office now, you're a smart guy. Dumbass.
You're talking about people, and what those types of labels tend to do is they tend to forget that every person in this world was made to be a uniquely different creature. And "Generation Why" is about why you even try to label people.
: I'm going to ask about one last song. It's a great title: "Where the Hell Did You Go with My Toothbrush?" Was that based upon the end of a relationship for you?
: No. There are a bunch of truisms in that song, and a lot of stuff that's just kind of embellished. It was meant to be a funny song. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, just absurd. Like, you took my toothbrush, bitch. [Laughing] You left with my very best friend, you took my dog, Smokey. And then now that I'm used to the couch, you left the bed. Stuff like that. You left all my empty beer cans all over the place, you didn't clean those up? You're leaving your beer cans all over the place and expect her to clean them up, and you wonder why she left. It's meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
July 14, 2013. Get more at reverendhortonheat.com.