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This is how Jim Heath (better known to the world as the Reverend Horton Heat) tells the story: at some point during his band’s two-and-a-half decade career, the Dallas Observer ran an article that, in so many words, declared his beloved outlaw rockabilly group dead. Jim Heath’s career was over, Heath found out, as his wife read the copy of the article over the phone. He learned that the band that had been at the birth of the Deep Ellum musical resurgence of the 1980s, was washed-up, over, irrelevant, had hit its expired-by date. The musical conversation, it was pronounced, had moved on.
Heath says he abruptly cut off his wife’s reading. It wasn’t that he was really bothered by the criticism, he says, or seething with critic rage. He wasn’t teetering on the edge of a mid-life existential crisis; in fact, he wasn’t rethinking anything. It’s just that Heath had a gig to go, a headlining spot at a festival that drew ten thousand screaming fans. The frontman tells this story because it offers the kind of delicious, self-vindicating irony his larger-than-life rockabilly personality relishes. And it’s an attitude Heath brings to the release of 25 to Life, a combination DVD/CD that is as much a defiant statement about the group’s longevity as it is a greatest catalogue of the band’s first twenty-five years.
When the Reverend Horton Heat was just beginning his career in the late eighties, so was Deep Ellum as we know it. At the time, the district offered little more than four clubs: Twilight Room, Theater Gallery, Club Dada and the Prophet Bar. Heath was then living in a loft above Theater Gallery without air conditioning. “I didn’t even have a window,” he laughs. “Just a fan and a bucket of water.” But as word of his hot-shot guitar skills spread and more clubs opened, the Reverend Horton Heat and Deep Ellum, which he calls “a wonderful godsend,” developed an almost symbiotic relationship. As the area gained prominence, so did the Reverend Horton Heat. Twenty-five years, ten albums, and thousands of performances later, both persist, albeit aged.
25 to Life includes a best of CD and both a DVD and audio CD of a recent (presumably 2012) performance at the Fillmore. The DVD performance is interspersed with band interviews and still photos of Jimbo and a rail-thin Heath from their halcyon Sub Pop days. The interviews alternate between reminiscence and manifesto, where Jim is able to dispense his old-school views on what it means to be a working band.
The choice of a recent show for the 25 to Life DVD is a somewhat bold one. They could have spliced together live footage from the ‘90s, if it existed. But this is no funeral, and the band has no need of propping up sepia-tone photographs from their prime. Rather, 25 to Life offers a juxtaposition of what Heath calls the rock star in the “spandex butterfly suit” and “career artists” who wear what they please and make music on their own terms.
The Reverend Horton Heat arrived when chasing a big label deal was the protocol. “All these bands and artists trying to stay on top was just annoying,” he says. The Reverend drew up a different goal, that of mimicking the unapologetic career artists he idolized like B.B. King, Willie Nelson or Ernest Tubb. “People are just massly brainwashed into this whole attitude of the one-hit wonder,” Heath says. “[I thought] it would be much cooler to be a career artist, and find a specific style or sound I could use for a whole career.”
The 53-year-old Heath often brings up B.B. King or Willie Nelson whenever he is asked how long he plans on performing. “You stop and think, ‘B.B. King is playing a gig somewhere tonight,’” Heath says. “Also, you gotta realize something about Willie Nelson. He got his start playing bass for Ray Price and Ray Price is gonna play a gig tonight somewhere. Willie Nelson is not the old guy.” (I checked it out. Ray Price, 86, is performing at Bass Hall on October 11 and B.B. King, also 86, is performing at Red Rocks on August 30.) “I don’t know where it’s all gonna take me and I don’t like to think about that too much. I like to just think about what I can do now to keep going and keep playing music.”
When the 25 to Life DVD first begins, my thoughts tend toward Heath’s aged appearance, how high he wears his pants these days, how deep the crags in his face have become. Yet, by the beginning of “I’m Mad,” a song from the band’s 1990 debut, my thoughts quickly snap to how gracefully he has aged and of how remarkable it is that he can perform such high-octane rock and roll with such energy and aplomb. Rarely in the twenty song performance do any of the members miss a beat, and Reverend Horton Heat beats arrive at sonic rates. It is a testimony to the fact that, whenever the Rev earns respect, it is with a little sweat.
The Reverend Horton Heat has never cultivated a career that begs for attention. Even Heath acknowledges the band’s “cult status” and the fact that they have never released a hit record. When the Observer declared him dead, it was only acting in accordance with its primary task: to cover new developments in music. There is very little to say about a working band who puts on great shows night after night. “We tour regardless of any album release,” reminds Heath, whose band performs about 130 times a year, a significantly downscaled itinerary from earlier days when the Reverend Horton Heat would push 300 gigs per year.
The Rev is someone we have compartmentalized into a particular style and that, in turn, allows us to stick him and his band at the margins. The primary knock against the Reverend Horton Heat is that his band operates on a rockabilly formula and that his lyrics, which are slightly underappreciated for their Chuck-Berry-esque humor, are sophomoric odes to fast cars and his manhood. But that formula also usually results in virtuosic guitar licks and what used to be called rock and roll. Given the ultimatum, I am always going to fall into the play-your-damn-instruments camp. And by that metric, the Rev makes the current field look downright silly.
If you were to carve a Mount Rushmore of Dallas music, who goes on it? Certainly Blind Lemon Jefferson and probably, by extension, T-Bone Walker, but then who? Sam the Sham? The Dallas-born, Austin-made Stevie Ray Vaughn? Edie Brickell? Vanilla Ice? How far can you go down that list before you get to the Reverend Horton Heat, an instrumental innovator who all but helmed the apex of Deep Ellum?
Jim Heath does not take much time to consider his place in Dallas music, even if he suspects his band “may be taken for granted” in local circles. It is irrelevant, because the Reverend Horton Heat is living his dream of a career musician. 25 to Life is designed to let you know that, on a given night, the Rev is probably playing a gig somewhere. And given thirty years, we should not be surprised if Jim Heath is doing the same thing, plopped down on a stool wearing a pork pie hat and his trademark devil’s grin, playing music on his own terms.
Photos courtesy of The Reverend Horton Heat