By Jacob Sprecher
On stage, The Reverend Horton Heat sticks out like a brilliantly sore thumb. He’s a big tall man with a big raspy voice and big red guitar, and his suits are loud enough to silence the frenetic psychobilly riffs blasting out from his Fender Super Reverb. The Reverend is also a bonafide road warrior, having logged literally thousands of shows, at one point touring 275 days a year. But beneath the game, he’s just a regular dude named Jim Heath from Dallas. He’s easy-talkin’, down-to-earth and flat-out humble. Out on the highway like always (he doesn’t have an album to pump—just touring to tour) Synthesis caught up with the Reverend and for a simple chat.
So inquiring Buck Owens fans need to know: Where do you buy your suits?
[Chuckles.] Well, that would be top secret, but I get ‘em from a couple of places, but the main guy is a guy named George Esquivel in Orange County. He’s really a shoe designer—he makes some unbelievably killer shoes, but he’s just good all around and helps design and work out the details of my suits. And I had one done in Nashville by a lady named Katy K, she’s really cool. Once the band got a little more successful I was able to actually get these people and pay ‘em to do cool suits, but before that it was all about hittin’ the vintage stores.
In all your years of gigging, who was the greatest honor to share a stage with?
Well, that’s a tough one, because some of my heroes I’ve gotten to do some shows with… We opened for Johnny Cash at The Fillmore one time, and that probably was the most meaningful, ya know, but that being said, man, we just did a show with Jerry Lee Lewis a while back. We [also] opened up for Carl Perkins and that might have been all around the best one, because after the show was over, there was a little green room area, and he was just sittin’ there by himself and I went and sat next to him. And he started talkin’ to me and told me stories for about an hour and half. That was way cool.
By that same token, have you ever toured alongside another band, gotten off the road and said, “What a bunch of assholes”?
[Laughs.] Ummm, yeah, but I don’t wanna name names. In all honesty, most of ‘em aren’t like that. The successful ones [became successful] because of years of touring, and broken promises, and dreams unfulfilled and they just kept striving through that. And that has a way of humbling people, so it’s usually the younger, inexperienced people that are assholes. But, you know, there’s some old assholes, too [chuckles].
Now, I know you love your signature Gretsch, as well as your Gibson ES-175, but is there a dream guitar out there that you’ve never laid your mitts on?
Well, you know, quite honestly, not really other than for maybe investment purposes. I still think it would be pretty cool to have a real 1950s Les Paul, or a 1950s Stratocaster. Maybe I could do the Les Paul, but the Stratocaster’s got three pickups and one of ‘em is right in the middle where [I play]—I keep hittin’ the pickup as much as the strings. But I’d still like to have one. So maybe someday I’ll get into the investment thing so all the lawyers and doctors don’t have all the fun; but in the meantime I’m not rich [laughs].
As someone that’s played literally thousands of shows, is there a crowning bizarre moment or story from a show or the road that sticks out in your mind?
Gosh, man, all sorts of crazy stuff. Lemme see…it happens so often, coming up with just one if kinda difficult. Well, one time me and Jimbo [Wallace] were playin’, it was in Lawrence, Kansas; we kinda were standin’ right next to each other, kinda rockin’ out, you know. And from out of the crowd somewhere, somebody threw a 90-mile-an-hour shot glass, and it missed me and him by inches. I mean we were standin’ really close together, and it went right in between our heads. [It] really coulda done some damage.
We don’t like the throwing stuff. To us, it’s redneck. It’s not punk rock, it’s a redneck thing; it’s an asshole thing. But anyway, Jimbo got upset, and he went up to the mic and he yells, “Listen, dammit! If you’re gonna throw somethin’, throw somethin’ soft!” And right when he said that, out of the crowd, flying up onto the stage, landing right in between us was a little stuffed bunny rabbit. So we looked at each other and said, “Well, at least we’re headed in the right direction.”
In your estimation, what region of the country has the strongest rockabilly scene?
I think easily the West Coast. I think part of it is because of the Mexican culture; the real rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly and hot rod culture never died. And you mix that in with a bunch of people that are stylish, you know… But that being said, man, there’s great scenes all over. The rockabilly scene in Columbus, Georgia is no less cool than the scene in San Francisco or Orange County—it’s just there’s a lot fewer of ‘em.
If you could create a super group, dead or alive, what would the lineup be? And you can’t pick current band mates.
A super group would for sure have Jeff Beck on guitar. And then, lemme see…um…I don’t know, maybe if they could get Jerry Lee Lewis to play piano… Well see the thing is, if I start talkin’ about bass players and drummers, I don’t wanna offend my bass player and drummer, so…[laughs].
So you’re a big Jeff Beck guy?
Oh I love Jeff Beck. And one thing that people don’t realize is he’s one of the best rockabilly guitar players in the world. Some of his fusion stuff I like, some of it’s a little over-the-top. But man, when he plays rockabilly, there’s nobody that can touch him. He might still be tourin’ with it, but he was doing a tribute to Les Paul and Mary Ford, and it’s rippin’. He does these Les Paul licks note for note, and then he gets even more extended, and it’s not that he gets off in some crazy, out-there land, but he just knows that style so good he can just play. He’s really killer.
Is there any living musician or group with whom you’ve never collaborated that you’d like to hook up with?
You know, man, collaboration and all; I haven’t really been into that too much. Honestly, I’m so focused on Reverend Horton Heat—I tried to have a little side band here in Dallas about six or seven years ago, and just doing that every two months, I had to quit. Reverend Horton Heat’s just a really time-consuming thing for me… It remains to be seen. We’ll just have to see what happens.