Reverend Horton Heat has spent the past 25 years melting the faces of anyone who strays too close. The act, consisting of Jim “Reverend Horton” Heath, upright bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla, serves as the gold standard for modern rockabilly, and the trio is lauded by fans for its relentless touring schedule and high-energy output.
Heath’s signature sound comes from the frets of a signature Gretsch 6120 hollow body guitar. A longtime staple of the rockabilly sound, Heath has taken the guitar to rare heights and is able to coax a huge, raw sound out of it that few others can replicate without use of distortion pedals or over-sized amps, both practices that Heath eschews.
“If you want good distortion, 100-watt amps aren’t the way to go,” he said in a phone interview from the band’s tour bus. “Guys these days get these huge amps, these big Marshall 100s, but the sound is too clean. Get a small amp, and crank it to 10.”
Heath grew up in and around San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas, listening to Mexican-influenced country and rock acts like Freddy Fender and Al Dean and The All Stars. Both acts would go on to influence Heath’s own guitar playing with their emphasis on high technical ability and quick pacing.
“Freddy Fender was really great songwriting and really great singing,” Heath said. “Classic songs from the ’50s and early ’60s — ‘Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.’ Al Dean and The All Stars were really top-level musicians. That’s the thing about country music, especially back then: Those guys were really hot guitar players. They could play really fast and really clean.”
And when it comes to playing fast and clean, there are not many people who can hold a candle to The Rev. After kicking the door in with its 1990 debut on Sub Pop Records, “Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em,” Reverend Horton Heat has been synonymous with hard driving, balls to the wall rock ‘n’ roll. Not only has the band’s music developed a devoted legion of fans, but The Rev has been a go-to act for video game soundtracks. The act’s music has been in everything from “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” to “Redneck Rampage.” But arguably the biggest outside influence on the band’s following came in 2007 when the single “Psychobilly Freakout” was featured in “Guitar Hero II.”
“Guitar Hero was a really popular game,” Heath said. “The gamer crowd started coming to see us. A lot of older people I’d meet that have kids would say, ‘I’ve never heard of you, but my kids know all about you!’ Having a song in a popular video game is almost like having a hit song on the radio now.”
The band took a small detour in sound with 2009’s “Laughin’ and Cryin’ With The Reverend Horton Heat,” an album that leaned further toward the band’s country roots than anything else they have released. But when Heath started working on the components of what would eventually become 2014’s “Rev,” a return to psychobilly form felt inevitable. The band was signed to Chicago-based Victory Records in 2012, but the label stayed out of the way and trusted in The Rev’s process.
“It never ends up being the way I planned,” he continued, talking about his method of fleshing out an album. “Music hits me out of the blue, like a bolt from outer space that I’m just a medium for. There’s almost no explaining it.”CV