Headed back to town for shows this weekend Friday night at Double Door and Saturday at Wicker Park Festival, I spoke with Reverend Horton Heat frontman Jim Heath about the influence that his home state of Texas has had on his music, as well as the impact former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten had on the latest Reverend Horton Heat release, REV..
One of rockabilly's finest, the Reverend Horton Heat are currently riding high on the success of their critically acclaimed return to form, REV - their eleventh studio album and first for Chicago based label Victory Records. Where 2009's Laughin' and Cryin' with The Reverend Horton Heat focused primarily on the group's country roots, REV returns to the more punk, rock and rockabilly sounds that accompanied the band on their rise to prominence in the early nineties.
Continuing in the decades -long tradition of what seems to be a never-ending tour, the Reverend Horton Heat return to Chicago for two shows this weekend: Friday night at Double Door and Saturday evening at Wicker Park Festival.
The February conversation I had with Jim Heath (alongside the release of REV) touched on the diverse musical history of his home state of Texas - specifically country and blues - and hits on a variety of often overlooked Texas artists including recently deceased blues legend Johnny Winter. Highlights of that conversation follow below...
Q. Texas is one of my favorite states when it comes to music because its musical legacy is so diverse: Everything from Buddy Holly to Pantera. What were you listening to growing up in Texas that probably had an impact down the line when you started making your own music?
Jim Heath: Well, in Texas you really couldn’t get away from country music. My Dad liked it a lot. My Mom was more kind of into the classics and big band, swing stuff. But I remember really getting turned onto songs like [Merle Haggard’s] “Okie from Muskogee” and [Buck Owens’] “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” and then that kind of led to some of the more harder stuff like [Johnny Cash’s] “Folsom Prison Blues” and that kind of thing.
I don’t know… Texas has been pretty wide open to all sorts of types of roots music even back then. So that’s how I found blues, rockabilly and all sorts of stuff. I grew up in Corpus Christi and in Corpus Christi, Freddy Fender was huge. He’s from Corpus Christi. So that was a pretty good deal back then.
But there’s a lot of unsung country heroes from Texas. Like there’s a great band called Al Dean and the All-Stars. They were real popular and we listened to that a lot.
Q. Who are some of the Texas artists that you feel seem to be particularly overlooked at times?
JH: I’ll tell you what: Johnny Winter is kind of overlooked. He’s a super great singer and a great guitar player. So he’s a little overlooked.
A lot of the rockabilly guys: Sid King & the Five Strings, Gene Summers and Johnny Carroll. Johnny Carroll is one of the best rockabilly guys ever. In the rockabilly world, he’s not overlooked. He’s one of those guys there who everybody tries to do his stuff at some point. But in the grand scheme of things, Johnny Carroll kind of never really was or whatever.
Q. In Chicago, our legacy is obviously blues music. I think that’s an aspect of Texas music that often gets overshadowed by the country stuff: There have been some great blues artists who've come out of Texas…
JH: The blues thing, man. Jimmie Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan. The blues thing as well as the country thing.
My big influence was Jimmie Vaughan more than Stevie Ray – because I was into that kind of authentic, electric blues thing. And Stevie Ray Vaughan was too… But then Stevie kind of got more aggressive and kind of got a little bit like Robin Trower or something. That was kind of not in my realm. I was kind of more into the fifties thing than the Hendrix thing that Stevie Ray embraced.
Q. The last time we talked, you had some particularly funny memories of Freddie King…
JH: I think I got to see him sit in with Eric Clapton just weeks or months before he died.
I used to be able to go and hang around him because he liked the rock and roll girls. So he would hang around the heavy metal, rock and roll clubs. But all the musicians there, even though they were rock and rollers, liked blues too. They knew who Freddie King was so he would always get to go sit in with those bands. He was quite the party animal. But he was a cool guy.
That was one of the first concerts I got to go see was Freddie King. We used to always get to go see him play live because being in Texas he’d come to Corpus Christi and play the Ritz Music Hall. But yeah, he was an awesome player.
Q. A lot of critics are calling your new album REV a return to form... When it came time to start thinking about writing and recording, was there a concerted effort to head back more in the rock direction or was it just kind of a natural progression following the last album?
JH: Well, that’s a good question. Our last album [2009's Laughin' and Cryin' with The Reverend Horton Heat] was going to be a straight country album. And it wasn’t necessarily... but it leaned country really hard. And we kind of decided that’s that – we got that out of our system.
The country market is where even if you’re a great country artist, they don’t want you. They want some big doofus up there rapping with a Tennessee accent. And it’s just ridiculous. Even real country people aren’t accepted in the country world. And I don’t really think we were trying to get accepted in the country world at all actually… But we actually do get requested to play a lot of those types of venues.
All that aside: Yeah, it was a decision to get back more to just rocking stuff. So it’s kind of a return to the early nineties style of Reverend Horton Heat in a way. And that was a decision that was made before we even knew about Victory Records. It all kind of worked out for the best.
Q. You guys tour constantly and on this new album, there’s several references to cars and driving (REV, "Victory Lap," "Smell of Gasoline," "Scenery Going By," not to mention the album artwork itself). Does the road inspire you when you’re working on a new album?
JH: Yeah, the road inspires me… But [it's] kind of a bad inspiration.
The crazy thing is that I really probably enjoy playing music more than I ever did now. On the other side of it, I’m enjoying the road less and less. To make music work, you can’t let a tour turn into a sightseeing adventure. Basically, to make it work and maximize how much money everybody is going to make, you’ve got to play six nights in a row. And that one night you’re off, you’re in a podunk little place and it’s not quite as enjoyable as it used to be.
But I’ve had regular jobs and so I don’t really complain about that too much. I know what it’s like to have a hard job and I’m getting to have a career in something I love to do. It’s a dream career. So pretty much me and my family put up with it.
Q. “Longest Gonest Man” is a song that's kind of been floating around for years. Why finally include that on an album now?
JH: Well, I’ve got a couple of old friends that used to see us back in those days when that song was our main song. And they were the ones that were suggesting it.
But also, Johnny Rotten had that tape. That was the first song on the first demo tape that the Reverend Horton Heat ever made. That song was one of our best songs back in the early days and I just realized that it had never made an album. Johnny Rotten mentioned it when I talked to him about that tape he had. So I figured, let’s get it back out there. It’s a good rocking song.
Q. [Reverend Horton Heat bassist] JimBo Wallace said recently that there’s a story behind every Reverend Horton Heat song... I’m particularly intrigued by some of the rumors I’ve heard about the origins of the new song “Spooky Boots.”
JH: I knew this guy – he used to be the local light guy. So whenever bands would come through Santa Fe, New Mexico, he would do the lights. [He was] kind of an old biker with some sort of a disability (I’m thinking along the lines of birth defect as opposed to maybe a motorcycle accident). But he had a hard time getting around.
Anyway… he came to our soundcheck and I was eating lunch and he sat down with me and started telling me this long story:
“I had this girlfriend and one day I woke up and she was gone. And I haven’t seen her since. Her name was Spooky Boots and that’s the only name I ever knew of her. She used to take care of me and help me get dressed…”
I kind of figured that was important for him because he was disabled. When you’re disabled, the simple things in life can be very taxing. But then all of a sudden she just left.
So he told me that every Saturday, he’d go down to the town square of Santa Fe, New Mexico because there’s a lot of shoppers there. On that day there’s a lot of activity there and he keeps hoping he’ll see her down there.
Anyway, I was just about to tell him, “You know, if it’s been a while since that happened, man, just hang it up. Just give it up. If it’s been a while, you’ve gotta move on.” One of those types of comments. [But] I actually said, “How long has it been?” And he said, “Oh… since about April of 1969.”
So I figured it really wouldn’t do any good to tell him to give it up now if he’s done it this long! I was thinking, “Man… this guy has done that every Saturday since 1969!” He’s looking for somebody named Spooky Boots...
It just had to be a song. You know how it is.
- Jim Ryan
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(Details on this weekend's two Reverend Horton Heat shows below)
Reverend Horton Heat
Friday, July 25 at Double Door
Doors open at 8PM, show starts at 9PM
Also performing: The Bama Lamas, The Vallures, Killer Diller Record Hop
Click HERE to purchase tickets
Saturday, July 26 at Wicker Park Fest
8:30PM on the North Stage
$5 suggested daily donation
Also performing throughout the day: Lydia Loveless, Laura Stevenson, Owls, RJD2 and more