For the past 30 years, Reverend Horton Heat has carried the torch of rockabilly music, blending classic elements of blues, rock n’ roll, punk. Rat Rod Magazine recently had an opportunity to speak with the godfather of modern rockabilly to talk about the wild inventiveness of the 1950’s and those who keep that spirit alive today.
Like many of us in the rat rod community, Jim Heath looks back fondly on mid-century culture as a time when creativity bloomed out of every facet of American culture. “Even lamps looked like rockets back then” as Jim recalls. Not only were automobiles back then designed with a rich imagination but they were then customized by even wilder imaginations. “I love the custom cars of that era. I love what people were doing to them. A ’49, ’50, ‘51 Merc, it’s a great looking car to begin with. So these guys, they chopped those cars and lowered them and smoothed them out. That’s really cool. I love those cars.”
It’s an odd coincidence that the golden age of music and the golden age of the hot rod happened at exactly the same time. For Jim, it was the cars and trucks of the 1950s that drove his love of music, quite literally. “My first vintage car was a ‘52 Chevy Pickup Truck. It was just bare bones – right off of someone’s farm. We bought it from a farmer for two hundred bucks. It was an old straight six but we would load all of our amps and drums and PA and everything in the back of this pickup truck and drive around and go play gigs. That was when I was in high school.” From that point on, Jim describes his career as “one long extended tour that started 30 years ago”. Albeit these days they travel in a bus, the spirit and the sound of the early days of the band still resonate loudly on their most recent release, REV, the band’s eleventh studio album since their inception in 1985.
Those familiar with Reverend Horton Heat’s music will note a parallel between Jim’s appreciation for wild and inventive design of cars and the wildness and inventiveness of his music. Reverent Horton Heat is classic rockabilly, which is the classic sound of the 1950’s that has been chopped, customized, and hot rodded. Nobody does it better than “The Rev”.
Jim himself is the proud owner of a ’32 Ford Highboy built in the spirit of the late 50’s by fellow Texan, Jeff Milburn. “It’s one of those things that will never be finished. It’s always a project. I like to fiddle around with motors a little bit but my heroes are metal fabricators who can basically make their own car if they wanted to do it. Those are my heroes.” Like most of us here at Rat Rod, Jim is a believer that vehicles aren’t meant to shine, they are meant to be driven, they are meant to be fun, and maybe a little bit dangerous.
Jim is a man of many hats, balancing his time between being a working musician, running his own record label, Fun Guy Records, and building his own microphones. But perhaps the job that is dearest to him is fatherhood. Jim explains, “Another interesting thing about my story is that I‘ve been a dad through this whole thing. I got married and divorced really young but we had a child. So I had to be a dad. So me going out and spending five grand for a beat up ‘32 Ford body might not have been the most responsible decision.” As he navigates the often bumpy road of fatherhood, Jim, is ensuring that his children are schooled in hot rod culture, “We go to car shows and I like to show them the hot rod magazines. They like the colors and the styles and all that. I’m kind of hipping them to the mid-century culture. They know about hot rods, they know about Johnny Cash. Of course I can’t keep them from knowing who Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars are but I sure make sure they know who Jerry Lee Lewis is.”
In recent years, Jim has taken to putting on festivals like Horton’s Hayride in Southern California which includes a car show and the Elm Street Music & Tattoo Festival in Dallas, Texas. Reverend Horton Heat is currently on tour (as they usually are). Whether you’re a fan of mid-century culture, stunning guitar playing, or good music, Reverend Horton Heat is a must see. For more information on the festivals or Reverend Horton Heat, visit their website (www.reverend hortonheat.com). The band’s live performances are a must see.
Hey Rev, you in North Carolina tonight?
Yeah Ashville NC, a beautiful little town.
It looks like you’ve just added another leg of your current tour with dates stretching into July.
Well we just play a lot of gigs; I don’t look at it as different legs of a tour. It feels like one long extended tour that started 30 years ago.
Do you ever get sick of it?
Well the funny thing is, I am completely sick of the traveling. But the gigs themselves, getting onstage and playing, I have never had more fun than I do now. I have way more fun doing it now than I did in the early years. Because in the early years, every gig is so important. Like you’re just hoping, “I sure hope we can get a regular gig here at Bob’s Crab Joint. We better play good tonight.” None of that stuff is running through my head now. Now it’s all just about having fun and cutting loose and rockin’.
You played some big festivals last year. Was that a bit of a departure from the standard touring circuit?
It was, a little bit. We play a lot of festivals but last year we played more than normal, and we played Coachella, which is one of the bigger festivals in the world. We like playing festivals, it’s kind of what we do in the late summer and fall. It was fun.
It’s cool that rockabilly is still being represented at a festival like Coachella.
I think that Coachella kind of realizes that they need established bands as opposed to bands who are just YouTube sensations. We played Coachella and of course they had the big tent with the Electronic Dance Music. But the other bands I saw there were like Charles Bradley, who is of Daptone Records, its retro James Brown style music and he’s an older cat but he’s got new releases coming out because of Daptone. Daptone is kind of hip now because he worked a lot with Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones and Lee Fields. He’s got kind of a neo-Motown vibe going out of that label. We also saw Steely Dan and AC/DC – they were kind of the headliners on the nights we played. So I think they realize that they need to have some of those types of bands.
What is it about music from back then, rockabilly in particular, that allows it to transcend generations?
Well…I don’t know. I don’t think a whole lot about that. A long time ago, I made up my mind that there was something about the mid-century music that just resonated with me. I first got into it from listening to old rhythm and blues and rock n roll from the 50’s. There were all of these newer bands at the time that I was into but when I started going to the record shops and hearing Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter and Muddy Waters, which led me into a whole thing. What resonates with me, in my heart, is mid-century – that goes from the standards of the 1930s and the singers like Nat King Cole and [Frank] Sinatra all the way into the country guys of the 1950’s like Hank Williams, then you had surf guitar, and Nelson Riddle. That’s what resonated with me and that’s where I’m coming from. There’s something about that era that will ever be topped. Of course there’s great music and great musicians coming out of every era. But for some reason, there’s something about the urgency of that era – maybe because the record industry was new. But you had so much amazing stuff coming out, and the urgency of Jerry Lee Lewis having straight eights on piano, and Little Richard, and Fats Domino and Gene Vincent, and Johnny Burnett and the Rock N Roll Trio. Just so much good stuff came out all at once. There was an explosion in music that had never happened before so there was a lot of pent up talent that got released in that era.
The cars and trucks from that era were great too. That was kind of the golden age of the Classic Hot Rod.
Absolutely, and that resonates with me as well. I’m really into mid twentieth century stuff. I love art deco artwork, I like that zany atomic furniture, and mid-century modern furniture, and of course all that mid-century modern went into the design of our cars from that era. There’s just something about the cars from that era – like a ’39 Lincoln Zephyr – it’s an incredibly cool looking car. Cars started looking like rocket ships; even lamps started looking like rocket ships. It was a great era for design. That’s more of who I am I’m more of a style/design guy then I am a mechanic. I like to fiddle around with motors a little bit but my heroes are metal fabricators who can basically make their own car if they wanted to do it. Those are my heroes.
What kind of classics do you have at home or would like to have at home?
Well, no I don’t think I’m a good person to collect cars because I travel so much and I’m just not home enough. I have a really nice ’32 Ford Highboy Hot Rod that’s kind of designed in the spirit of the late 50’s. So it’s got wide white wall tires and hubcaps. It doesn’t have the flathead because one of my buddies that was around back then said that in about 1955 when the small block Chevy came out, he said those motors were so good. So he put those in everything. My car is kind of patterned after his a little bit and he had a small block Chevy. I had some help in that whole project, obviously. Plus twenty years ago, parts for those flatheads were kind of hard to find. There was kind of resurgence in demand for all of that stuff these days and you can get that stuff again. The small block was great also because I was kind of poor back then so I went with the 350. But I just love the style of those cars back then, man. I love the custom cars of that era. I love what people were doing to them. A ’49, ’50, ‘51 Merc, it’s a great looking car to begin with. So these guys, they chopped those cars and lowered them and smoothed them out. That’s really cool. I love those cars. I’d love to have something like that someday.
Another interesting thing about my story is that I‘ve been a dad through this whole thing. I got married and divorced really young but we had a child. So I had to be a dad. So me going out and spending five grand for a beat up ‘32 Ford body might not have been the most responsible decision. But yeah, the guy who really built my car, he’s one of my best friends of all time, his name is Jeff Milburn and he’s in Dallas and he’s just a genius mechanic. His shop is immaculate and he’s got the best tools but there’s nothing in his shop that was made to shine. Everything, even down to the vintage tools and machining equipment he has fixed up and maintained – it’s a cool shop.
I get the sense that you don’t hold these vehicles sacred like some folks who would rather they be kept in a museum and dusted once a month. You’re a believer that cars should be driven.
Yeah, that’s the coolest thing is driving them. That’s the way I always thought of it. My first vintage car was a ‘52 Chevy Pickup Truck. It was just bare bones – right off of someone’s farm. We bought it from a farmer for two hundred bucks. It was an old straight six but we would load all of our amps and drums and PA and everything in the back of this pickup truck and drive around and go play gigs. That was when I was in high school. I had a really unfortunate accident that wasn’t my fault and it totaled that truck. Then I didn’t have an old car for a long time. Then I had a 1950 Shoebox Ford that me and a guy fixed up and made it into a mild custom and then I got involved with this ‘32 Ford project and I realized that I could not be a car collector. I was a dad. So I decided that it would be good to have one cool car rather than a whole bunch of them. So I’ve got a really beautiful cool ‘32 Ford Highboy Hot Rod, it’s a lot of fun to drive. It’s been somewhat neglected now but it’s one of those things that will never be finished. It’s always a project.
Was that 1950 Ford the inspiration for “Five-O-Ford” song?
Yeah it was. It kind of has a double meaning. A lot of folks think it’s because of the 5.0 motor. Like the new Mustangs that have the 5.0 Liter Motor. But my Five O is for ’50.
Have you been working on any new music?
Yeah we’ve been so busy with promoting this REV record and doing the festivals and like I said, I’m a dad, so I got a little bit twisted off into the business side of things. I’m super satisfied with the parts of my life that deal with my family and playing gigs with my band. But what I was not liking was the details of the business. The tax compliance, the bookkeeping, accounting, filing, I was spending so much time trying to keep up with that stuff that it came to the point where I just wasn’t happy with that. So my wife said, “look, you need to be down in that studio working on your songs” and I said “you’re right”. So she helps to wrangle the business side of things for me and I’m much happier now. Man, I’m the most happy when I’m down in my studio cranking out crazy new guitar licks and recording and setting up microphones and playing on ProTools or my tape machines or my microphone preamps. I’ve been building microphone preamps. My studio has quite a few things that I’ve built myself so that’s fun. That’s when I’m most happy. In fact I’m happy my studio isn’t at my house because I’d spend all my time in there. I go down there sometimes at eight in the morning and I’ll sit in there and work through without stopping until like eight o clock at night and I could stay longer. That’s just kind of what I do. I wish I had more time to devote to being a cool guy, you know? Going to estate sales, buying records, I really want a jukebox. I live vicariously through my cool guy friends like Jeff Milburn and D.K. Smith and Oliver.
Being a dad is a pretty cool thing too.
I just love it, man, it just made my life. I just have a blast. It’s just the greatest. It’s a lot of responsibility but normally it’s nothing but laughs.
Do they share that enjoyment of hot rod culture with you? Do you take them out in the ‘32?
I don’t take them in the ’32 man, it’s too dangerous. That car is dangerous. When they get a little bit older I will but right now it’s just for me. But we go to car shows and I like to show them the hot rod magazines. They like the colors and the styles and all that. I’m kind of hipping them to the mid-century culture kind of thing. They know about hot rods, they know about Johnny Cash. Of course I can’t keep them from knowing who Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars are but I sure make sure they know who Jerry Lee Lewis is.
I know you’ve got a great collection of vintage guitars, could you tell us about some of them?
Yeah I have some. I don’t consider myself to be guitar collector but over the years I’ve picked up some pretty nice ones. I’ve got a Gretsch Chet Atkins and I take that to guitar shows and all of the dealers say that it’s the cleanest one they’ve ever seen. Its immaculate and it’s beautiful. I’ve got a Gretsch Streamliner that’s from 1957 but it looks brand new and I got that one from Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. Then I’ve got a ‘62 Fender Jazzmaster – that one has got some dings in it, it’s not immaculate, but it plays and sounds wonderful. It used to be my main guitar but it got stolen 22 years ago and now I got it back.
How did that happen? That’s a rare happening that a stolen guitar gets recovered.
Well it’s kind of a long story but the guy who bought it, bought it for a hundred dollars from a junkie that worked for me for me for a while. I didn’t know the guy was a junkie but he told the guy that the guitar was from a rehearsal studio and it was the rehearsal studio where this guy was and where we used to rehearse. Who sells a ‘62 Jazzmaster for a hundred bucks? But anyways I asked around who the guy was and they wouldn’t tell me but they said I should just be happy I got it back. So I think what happened is the guy felt guilty. But I beat myself up for 22 years that that thing got stolen, so to get it back, that guitar means a lot to me. But I’ve also got a couple Telecasters that are pretty cool. I’ve got a couple of Supros that are pretty neat. That’s what Link Wray played. I’ve got a 1954 Gibson ES 175D. That guitar is magical. It used to be my main guitar but the pickups are kind of noisy and weak – they’re old pickups but man, in a jazz situation, if you plug that thing into the right amplifier, it’s like Les Montgomery in 1959, it’s beautiful. Of course, I can’t play like Wes Montgomery but it’s got that sound.
Do you use your vintage gear on the Reverend Horton Heat records or do you just use your signature?
I usually just use the guitar that I’m used to which is my signature. I’ve got four of those. There’s one of them in particular that I’ve always gravitated towards and I’ve been using that one mainly for the last ten years or so. Sometimes in the studio, I will use the Jazzmaster or sometimes I’ll use the Telecaster or the Gibson ES 175. There’s one album we did called Spend the Night in the Box and that particular album has a lot of that Gibson 175 on it. Various other songs on other albums will have something different on them but in general, it’s my signature Gretsch. I have a White Falcon too that I’ve used and looking back on it now, I can’t remember what I used on a lot of those songs.
You released a 7” last year for Record Store Day. Is that something you’ll be doing again this year?
We’ve got a song called "Hardscrabble Women" that’s going to be coming out as a single. I think the reason they did that is kind of out of nowhere this really talented animation artist from the Ukraine did an animated video for that song “Hardscrabble Women” which appears on our latest album REV. Its really cool. The animator is super talented. So whenever that gets released, this should be pretty soon, the label decided to do a single for “Hardscrabble Women”. So the single will be coming out on Record Store Day. I also started a side project called Reverend Organdrum and we’re going to release a single this year at some point on my own little label called Fun Guy Records. That’s not going to be a record store day release or anything. It’ll just be a limited edition single. That’s about it. I’ve got my own festival called Horton’s Hayride. It’s a car show, rockabilly type festival in southern California. We’re going to be doing that again this year. Then I’ve got another festival called the Elm Street Music & Tattoo Festival. That’s in Dallas and it’s going to be May 20th and 22nd. So I’m kind of getting into the festival business now and one of them has a car show and the other one we are thinking of adding a car show to it.