In the midst of a five night Chicago residency at City Winery, I spoke with Reverend Horton Heat vocalist and guitarist Jim Heath about the storytelling and collaboration that make this residency unique and the idea of freedom and escape embodied by both music and cars...
For singer, guitarist and songwriter Jim Heath, the automobile represents freedom. Music itself represents escape and the marriage between the two has frequently defined some of his best work.
Growing up in Texas, Heath was heavily influenced by the sense of freedom he found in hot rods, rockabilly and more in an American culture bursting with creativity following World War II.
Moving to Chicago based indie label Victory Records in 2012, the Reverend Horton Heat released their eleventh studio album REV in 2014. Following the authentic country picking that defined their 2009 studio effort Laughin' And Cryin' With The Reverend Horton Heat, REV was hailed as a return to the surf, punk and rockabilly sounds that define much of their early work.
As the band continues work in the studio for an upcoming 2018 Victory release, Heath is excited about where the new sounds are heading. "So far it seems to have more kind of a rock and roll beat. Instead of rock, more rock and roll, I guess. We got the roll in there!" said Heath. "Some of my new stuff is kind of like a cross between Little Richard and Roy Orbison... It definitely has older vibes and influences and stuff."
In the midst of a unique residency at City Winery that sees the band collaborating with artists like humorous singer songwriter Unknown Hinson (Adult Swim's Squidbillies) and rockabilly singer Robert Gordon (who performed with guitarist Link Wray amongst others), I spoke with Jim Heath about the residency, life on the road, music and cars as an escape and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. Let’s start with the "City Church Of The Reverend Horton Heat" Chicago residency this week at City Winery. What can fans expect from this series of shows?
Jim Heath: Well, one thing about this run of dates is that we’ve got guests joining us on stage. Unknown Hinson is a really funny but extremely talented guitar player and singer songwriter. It’s funny stuff. Tongue-in-cheek stuff. But we back him up. So we stop in the middle of our set and he comes out and we play with him for a while. Then we finish out the set and he comes back for the encore.
[We're also] backing up Robert Gordon. And a lot of people may not be familiar with Robert Gordon. But he really paved the way for the rockabilly resurgence of the Stray Cats and The Blasters. Because he got signed on RCA doing rockabilly in the mid-70s. Which, at that time, rockabilly was kind of the most uncool thing you could do in a lot of people’s minds. And Robert Gordon kind of went against the grain and did his own thing. And he’s really awesome.
It’s gonna be fun.
Q. You've been doing more of these residencies. It's a really unique setting for this combination of storytelling and collaboration...
JH: Well, you know, yeah. We haven’t done a lot of residencies in our career.
But we’ve been doing one down at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas. And we’ve got another one of those coming up in a few weeks. But other than that we really haven’t done it all in one club. So it’s pretty cool.
It sure is a treat to be able to stay in Chicago for five days as opposed to coming in… Usually we’re here for less than twenty-four hours, play the gig and start driving again. So it’s cool.
It does take the sting out of having to sleep in a bunk moving down the road every night.
Q. That relationship between music and cars, music and hot rods, is something that can be found in a lot of your work. What is it about that relationship between music and the road, music and the car, music and driving that works so well together?
JH: I’m interested and influenced by mid-century stuff. And one thing that really drove… After we won World War II, there was this outburst of freedom. So all of the sudden, people were able to buy – younger people could have cars and they could have record players and they could have cool clothes. And the furniture got all kinds of crazy and artistic. It was a real outburst of culture, you know?
To me, hot rods and rock and roll – rockabilly, rhythm and blues, surfing – all of that was an outburst of freedom post-World War II. And so it kind of all goes together. So I enjoy stuff that’s not just rock and roll but the stuff that went with it: the clothes, the atomic furniture and stuff like that. It’s all so cool. I just think it was a real special time. And a very euphoric time.
It’s about freedom, you know? The car, the automobile, means freedom. It’s a little wild too. All the sudden all these teenagers could drive their own cars and turn music up really loud.
Q. You just hit on the key idea to me when it comes to the car and that’s that idea of freedom – the car as an escape. Music... after all these years, that ability to hit pause and escape real life - I think music represents that too. Is that something you’re conscious of either when you’re writing music or you’re out on tour?
JH: Absolutely. I want to be able to capture that freedom and the wildness of rock and roll. And some of it, frankly, is silliness.
You know, a lot of rock and roll… "Be-Bop-A-Lula." I mean, what does that mean? Nobody really knows. So "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and "Hound Dog" and "Blue Suede Shoes" and all that, it borders on silliness... but it’s that euphoric wildness where anything kind of goes.
So I try to capture that in my lyrics and in my music too.
Q. Well, I hear there’s a new album in the works. Moving from the Laughin' and Cryin' With The Reverend Horton Heat album in 2009 to the Rev album in 2014 went from authentic country kind of back to rock. How’s the new music shaping up?
JH: Well… So far it seems to have more kind of a rock and roll beat. Instead of rock, more rock and roll, I guess. We got the roll in there! We got the roll and we got a little bit of – some of my new stuff is kind of like a cross between Little Richard and Roy Orbison. I don’t know how that works. But it definitely has older vibes and influences and stuff.
But a lot of it is kind of zany and funny. I’m making a bunch of odd noises on this album. It’s kind of crazy. I don’t know how to describe that.
I don’t know. I’m still working on it. It’s still kind of morphing. If I write and record three more songs, it really can’t change the face of the whole album. So it’s still kind of in the works, you know what I mean?
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
"The City Church Of The Reverend Horton Heat"
Reverend Horton Heat Chicago Residency
Wednesday, October 11 - Sunday, October 15, 2017
Doors open at 6PM
Each show starts at 8PM
Friday, October 13: Unknown Hinson, The Creepshow
Saturday, October 14: Robert Gordon, The Delta Bombers
Sunday, October 15: Robert Gordon, The Delta Bombers
Tickets: $28 - $55 per concert
Click HERE to purchase tickets