Rev. Horton Heat brings
rockabilly back to forefront

By Wayne Bledsoe - Scripps Howard News Service - Posted April 25, 2003
           When rockabilly was young it was dangerous. Society shuddered at the music's raucous energy and overt sexuality. It was pure black rhythm and blues mixed with the country music of poor whites. Jerry Lee Lewis, a bigamist while still a teen, pounded his piano like a madman. A young, handsome Elvis Presley gyrated his hips onstage and innocently queried offstage "Why buy the cow when the milk is free?" The payola scandal investigations put the nail in the coffin of the original rockabilly rebels in 1959. Elvis defected to the Army, and non-threatening teen idols were ushered in to replace the unwashed rockers. Rockabilly bobbed to the surface several times over the next few years, but when the Rev. Horton Heat revived it in the early 1990s, it felt dangerous all over again.
           Led by guitarist singer Jim Heath, the band went toe-to-toe with the likes of Sub Pop Records label mates Nirvana. Nirvana became the touchstone for the punk-inspired music that became known as "grunge," but, with dark lyrics and a wild demeanor, the Rev. Horton Heat made the case that rockabilly was the original music for punks.
           "Rockabilly has always sort of been the dog with the hiccups every now and then someone throws it a bone," says Heath from his home in Dallas, Texas. "Now people are sort of looking at that era again thinking it was cool." He admits Sub Pop seemed like a strange fit for a band with one two-tone shoe rooted in 30-year-old music.
           "We were the odd men out," says Heath, "but in some weird way we fit in. I liked a lot of those garage bands. At the time I thought that thing was the coolest thing going, and I was proved right when Nirvana went big." Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Heath was turned on to the idea of performing when his cousin popped into the 8-track tape deck a copy of Johnny Cash performing "Folsom Prison Blues" at a live prison concert. "The sound of those prisoners just going wild at the end of that song," says Heath. "That just sort of let me know what kind of an effect music could have on people."
           Heath remembers his first attempt at playing guitar was trying to master Luther Perkins' opening licks to the song. "That just sort of started a lifelong journey," says Heath. Visits to hip local record stores steered Heath in the direction of early electric blues, which then led him to rockabilly. Finding it in those days could take some digging.
           "Back in the '70s a Gene Vincent album was already a collector's item. To buy one would cost me half a week's pay if I could find it." Heath joined a 1950s cover band, and after a failed marriage and having a child that he needed to support, Heath formed the Rev. Horton Heat (dubbing himself and the band the same name) in the late 1980s, determined to make a living. Bassist Jimbo Wallace and a drummer referred to as Taz (replaced by Scott Churilla in the mid-'90s) signed on and began touring the country. Heath drew some inspiration from aging musicians including blues legends B. B. King and Albert King and country great Ernest Tubb. "These guys played in roadhouses for 30 years and they were still going," says Heath. "There was something to that 'You gotta pay the dues to play the blues,' and there's something more to it than being a floozy rock star with poofed-up hair."
           Yet, the hard work was sometimes augmented by harder recreation. "Early in our career we were a 24-hour party band," admits Heath. "We had a good work ethic, but there were a few shows where one of us was just so drunk we couldn't play the gig."
           In fact, the group's career has bounced up and down never far enough up to turn them into stars, but never far enough down to destroy the band. Even when the group was between record deals gigs were plentiful. "I consider being a musician more valid than being a recording artist," says Heath. "I can't record an album tour a little, stop and then wait to record another one. I have to play gigs."
           The band's latest disc, "Lucky 7," was released on the artist-championing Artemis Records in 2002, and a younger generation is getting a taste of the band's music by way of an appearance on the Cartoon Network. The band was featured on a Cartoon Network disc of cartoon themes. "'That was great," says Heath. "(Cartoon Network show) 'Johnny Bravo' is one of my favorite cartoons," says Heath. "I actually know guys like Johnny Bravo. He's really a rockabilly guy..."

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