Reverend Horton Heat: 'It really turned into something way bigger than I thought it would'
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
Though a thousand fans may disagree, Jim Heath doesn't think he's a cool guy.
And maybe he's got a point.
"I know what a cool guy is, and a lot of my best friends do the coolest things and are the coolest guys in the world, but I can never do that because I've been a dad through this whole thing," Heath said. "It's kind of hard to justify spending a lot of money on cool tattoos and buying a manifold for my hot rod when I have to pay child support payments and get my daughters through college."
Then again, Heath — better known as Reverend Horton Heat, the iconic rockabilly singer and bandleader — doesn't need a tattoo or a bitchin' ride to prove his cool bona fides. His cool is just understood.
"Let Me Teach You How to Eat," Reverend Horton Heat
"I'm being too self-depricating," Heath admitted. "I've got to tell you man, I get to do cool stuff."
Heath grew up in south Texas and was introduced early on to the music that would become his passion.
"It was always there growing up, but we didn't call it 'rockabilly'," he said. "A lot of it was still on the radio, just the real mainstream stuff — the Elvis songs, the Jerry Lee Lewis songs.
"I was a kid. I didn't know that 'Blue Suede Shoes' was rockabilly."
For a while, he considered himself a rock 'n' roll kid: "I was riding my bike to the record store probably to buy Alice Cooper or Black Sabbath records, and they were playing the blues in there, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf.
"I realized they were as cool and as scary as metal or rock 'n' roll, and I just fell in love ... with '50s blues when I was 12 or 13 years old, and that led me to the '50s in general," Heath said.
He started playing in rock bands in high school, then found a way to meld that personal passion for '50s music to a more modern, punk-inspired sound, and Reverend Horton Heat — the band and the stage persona — was born.
His debut album Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em was released in 1990, spawning what's still his biggest hit — "Psychobilly Freakout."
"Psychobilly Freakout," Reverend Horton Heat
Was he trying to bring rockabilly back, or was he just attracted to the sound and the style?
"It was really both," he said. "All of these guys who wanted to be rock stars were wearing mullet haircuts and spandex pants. I thought, man, I'm just going to stick to my roots.
"Blues led me to this thing. ... I started writing my own songs and to ry to do something original doing this kind of music," he continued. "It really turned into something way bigger than I thought it would, and we really did bring rockabilly back to a segment of people who had no idea what it was."
Off stage, Heath says he doesn't quite have the same fire — so much so that the folks he has lived around in his Dallas neighborhood for the past 20 years often don't even know what kind of psychobilly is living next door to them.
"It took about three years before they knew I was Reverend Horton Heat — and really, they still don't. They say, 'You do that band thingy.'"
Those neighbors miss all the musicians coming in and out of Heath's home studio — "metal guys and Asian ladies who play these crazy drums, fusion guys" — and there are days that Heath would rather just be at home himself and forego the road completely.
"But you know what? I love to play music so much that I put up with the traveling," he said. "I really enjoy playing music more now than when I was young. There is so much less pressure than there was back then.
"I can go up there and feel good and let her rip and not worry if a label guy is going to be there or hope that the promoter will hire us back.
"But the travel? I'm over it."