Bringing the heat4/13/2016
Reverend Horton Heat is been best known — and rightfully so — for the guitar work of frontman Jim, “Reverend Horton” Heath. From the time the band was first unleashed upon the world with 1990s “Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em” and its iconic single, “Psychobilly Freakout,” there was no doubt about Heath’s ability to make a guitar do things that few others could.
But hidden under the white-hot licks is Heath’s reverence for a well-written song. It cannot simply be enough to slide around on the neck of a guitar and noodle all night — not if you intend to last 25 years, anyway.
No, if you are going to have staying power, there has to be some meat on the song’s bones. And while not every fan will necessarily notice or appreciate it, Heath tries to craft songs that tell stories. That attention to good songwriting — and mixing it with insanely complex playing — is something that Heath picked up as a young man in south Texas, listening to some of the local acts like Freddy Fender and Al Dean & The All Stars.
“Freddy Fender was really great songwriting and really great singing,” Heath said in a phone interview. “Classic songs from the 1950s 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.”
Heath’s instantly recognizable 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 explained. “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.”
It is a method that has paid off. Not only has Reverend Horton Heat toured constantly for the past quarter of a century, but The Rev’s songs have been heard in films, on TV and in a number of video games. Heath actually attributes a large number of his newer fans to the latter fact.
“Guitar Hero was a really popular game,” Heath said of the band’s most famous soundtrack appearance. “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.”
Hit songs on the radio have been hard for the band to come by, but The Rev has done all right. Signed to Victory Records in 2012, the label allowed Heath to work on his most recent album, 2014’s “Rev,” almost completely unimpeded, which is probably for the best since Heath’s writing style does not allow for a lot of interference.
“It never ends up being the way I planned,” he said. “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