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The Reverend Horton Heat

Holy Smokes: The Reverend Horton Heat serves the Church of Rock & Roll.

By Reyan Ali
Posted // July 15,2009 -

Quiz Jim Heath about the closest thing he’s seen to a religious experience in his time in The Reverend Horton Heat and he’ll have a story. Here it goes: Heath and company once played a party in a concrete-floored warehouse with electricity issues. Heath had to keep away from the mic or risk getting shocked. During their set, a girl offered Heath a bottle of Rolling Rock that, in his recollection, was “like a sacrament.” Clutching his guitar in one hand, he reached for the beer with the other. As he touched it, a jolt passed between the two strangers. The bottle lit up. Heath jerked the drink away, breaking the current, and “Everybody just went ‘Whoa.’ They thought I was a kind of god or something after that,” he recalls in his drawl with a chuckle. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

Of course, the charged bottle was a product of science, but listening to Heat’s “Big Sky” can compel you to chalk it up to the glory of rock & roll. The rumbling instrumental guzzles feedback, slows briefly, darts between frets, and takes off roaring. While assuredly the key song in the band’s repertoire, it’s one among dozens: Since bonding in the mid-’80s, Heat has knocked out eight albums, two retrospectives, a collection of Christmastime covers, and a handful of singles. Their style samples a smattering of flavors—rockabilly, surf rock, punk, psychobilly, the blues, ’60s outlaw country—and wraps itself up in a hot-rodding, lowbrow package. Through just guitar, vocals, upright bass, and drums, their rock has grown weighty and irresistibly American.

Heat is a product of the South. Like a summer in their hometown of Dallas, their music is hot and greasy. “That area from Tennessee through Arkansas into Texas is really the birthplace of rockabilly,” says Heath. “Growing up in that area, country blues [were] really popular.” The front man owes his career to “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash’s rebel classic: It was the song that birthed his guitar skills (“I thought I was learning how to play like Cash. It wasn’t until years later I realized that I was really trying to play like Luther Perkins, Cash’s guitar player.”) and allegedly gave him his act’s moniker (The legend is that during a solo Heath performance of “Folsom” in 1985, a Dallas promoter howled, “Go, Reverend!”). Cash’s At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin later exposed a different facet: “I could hear those prisoners’ reactions to the lyrics,” Heath says of the iconic live recordings. “I was still pretty young. Until hearing that, I didn’t realize how powerful lyrics could be.”

From there, Heath dove into the Chicago blues of Chess Records, citing Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter as early influences. “I really liked the harmonica players, too. I was almost going to be a harmonica player.” Sticking with the guitar, he moved onto B.B. King licks. “That led me into rock & roll and rockabilly.”

Heat’s output holds deepest rooted in the latter. “[We] started trying to be an authentic rockabilly band playing original songs as opposed to cover songs from that era,” Heath says. “At a certain point, I was working and hanging around a lot in alternative clubs. I decided to use rockabilly more as a platform than to stay in that particular framework. I’d have influences of other stuff.”

As his view expanded, so did the outfit’s sense of humor. ”I really didn’t want us to be a novelty act, so we have some more serious stuff,” he adds. Heath says that they’ve recently become comfortable with camp but, really, the seeds were sown on their debut LP Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em: track five is tagged “Big Dwarf Rodeo.”

Is that bottle-electrifying power still what makes Heath tick? Oh, yeah. “I still love that stuff,” he says. “I still listen to it.” In the lineage of rock & roll, Heath isn’t its creator—only its apostle.

REVEREND HORTON HEAT
w/ Nekromantix
The Depot
400 W. South Temple
Friday, July 17
8 p.m.
DepotSLC.com

 
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