Singer/guitarist Jim Heath is old-school, and not just because of his predilection for country, blues, rockabilly, and classic rock ’n’ roll. (You know, when it was still three words.)
The man better known as the Reverend Horton Heat doesn’t have much use for the recording studio, preferring to sweat it out under the lights, something he’s been doing since playing high-school dances in his teenage band. A musical lifer, Heath isn’t content to sit still, and while he’s perhaps feeling his age as he nears 50, his always-raucous playing continues to improve with time.
“I wore a T-shirt that I bought a few years ago and this young guy says, ‘That’s a cool T-shirt, that’s vintage, right?’ I’m like, ‘No, I bought it new, but I bought it in like 1989, when you were 7 or something, so I guess it is vintage,” Heath says with a laugh.
Heath made good money during his first gigs with Southern Comfort, a 1950s cover band, and that sent him on his way, though not without a few fallow years in between. The Reverend – a moniker given him by a former club owner in Dallas’s live-music center Deep Ellum – was born in the mid-’80s and quickly proved profitable enough to support a backing band. Before long, Sub Pop had scooped them up, inaugurating a career that’s spanned two decades and nine studio albums. Not that Heath would measure his life in records.
“I consider being a recording artist to not be a valid art form. I consider it to be more like making an advertisement for your band,” he says. “I consider being a musician to be a valid art form.
“Everything is so focused on being a recording artist that guys don’t even want to be in a band anymore,” Heath adds. “`The studio` is OK for a while, then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘God, we’ve been here for six hours.’”
This attitude explain why it’s been a few years since the last proper Reverend Horton Heat album, 2004’s vibrant Revival (excluding the Christmas-themed We Three Kings in 2005). Heath sees the band heading into the studio this fall, however, to record their 10th album, and he has found one thing he actually enjoys about the confines of the studio: “You get to work on some songs that you’ll never get to play because there’s only so much time on a live show.”
Not that Heath is resting on his laurels. As a musician, he’s compulsively on a course of self-improvement or horizon expansion. His latest challenge is the Reverend Organ Drum, an organ trio he formed with Asleep at the Wheel’s Hammond pedal pusher, Tim Alexander, and Heath’s drumming neighbor, Todd Soesbe. Propelled largely by Soesbe’s enthusiasm, the trio released their debut, Hi-Fi Stereo, early this year.
The largely instrumental album covers a variety of styles like a versatile lounge band, ranging from Frank Sinatra’s “Bim Bam Baby” to Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” to soul classic “Time is Tight” and themes for James Bond and the 1960s television show Route 66. Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of irony for this inveterate live performer, the album has proven to be more popular than the performances.
“We have some gigs where there are 10 people. Part of the problem is we play on the weeknights, not weekends,” Heath admits. “I bet we could be more successful in Austin or maybe San Antonio than in Dallas.”
Regardless of the group’s modest success, Heath enjoys the opportunity to work out and adapt some heavily orchestrated material to their basic combo. He picked out many of the horn and piano runs using his TASCAM deck to slow down the recording to something he could track, repeating it until he could replicate it.
“That’s how I learned to play guitar back when I was 12-13 years old. It’s much easier now, because back then I would just ruin my albums. I would put the needle down and pick it up, over and over in the same part, until it scratched and skipped right over that part,” Heath laughs. “It’s still fun and it’s still a challenge. In some ways it makes me feel young to sit down and try to bite my tongue and figure `it` out.”
Heath already has an idea what his next course of musical study is going to be after the new Horton Heat album.
“I’d like to get much more into a lot of the style that interested me heretofore, but I really never refined too much: Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and that finger-style,” Heath says. “It’s been a part or influence on what I do, but I really would like to get into exactly how they did that, which is going to be a monumental task because Chet Atkins is really good. His stuff is really hard to play.”
Meanwhile, Heath will continue to do what he’s done these last 22 years: set the stage ablaze with his spirit and proficiency.
“We’re a rock ’n’ roll band,” he says. “We’re out there to go to the drag races. We’re not out there to look at the flowers I painted on my car.” •
Rev. Horton Heat
w. Nashville Pussy
8pm Sun, May 18
$25 (day of show)
2410 N. St. Mary’s