For those who have never attended one of The Reverend Horton Heat’s rock shows before, fan and four-time veteran Lisa Simmons has two pieces of advice: buy tickets straight from the Bluebird (to avoid Ticketmaster fees) and make sure to sport appropriate footwear.
“Wear good shoes as you will be hopping and dancing all over the place – no heels,” she said. “But if you do sport a vintage-looking pair, prepare to get the hell complimented out of the.”
This Tuesday, The Reverend Horton Heat and his band will return to Bloomington for their seventh show since 2001. Self-described as “the biggest, baddest, grittiest, greasiest, greatest rocker that ever piled his hair up and pounded the drinks down,” The Reverend (real name Jim Heath), along with Jimbo Wallace (upright bass) and Paul Simmons (drums – no relation to Lisa) have made a more than two-decade career out of combining the ’50s sounds of rockabilly with elements of country, hard rock and punk.
“You get several different genres of music rolled up into one awesome rock 'n' roll package!” Lisa Simmons said.
The band’s origins trace back to Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood in 1985, where the name “Reverend Horton Heat” was given to Heath by a club owner just before his first performance.(The “Reverend” moniker supposedly came from the fact that his music reminded the owner of gospel, while “Heat” was from Heath’s last name. As for “Horton” – while The Reverend’s Wikipedia page claims that it was inspired by country singer Johnny Horton, Heat himself has said that he has no idea where the club owner got it – only that the he had a habit of giving everyone nicknames, and “Horton” had been The Rev's handle even before going on stage.)
In the beginning, Heat was a solo act playing blues clubs, but gradually assembled a band and transitioned from blues to rock. It was not until 1989, however, when he met Wallace and heard his slap-bass style (a major element in rockabilly), that the band’s signature sound began to take shape. The recruitment of original drummer Patrick “Taz” Bentley soon followed, and growing popularity brought them a deal with Seattle’s Sub Pop Records.
The timing was fortuitous. Former Sub Pop band Nirvana had just released Nevermind, breaking hair metal’s choke hold on rock airplay and creating an industry-wide scramble for new sounds. And The Reverend Horton Heat’s “country-flavored punkabilly” (the band’s term) managed to make old styles new again. It was playful – with humorous lyrics about booze, sex and drugs – yet fit with the loud, fast, dark and rebellious undercurrents in alternative rock.
“Rockabilly – true, real deal, balls out rockabilly – is just great honest music,” Eddy Price, lead singer of Bloomington rockabilly band the Phantom Cruisers, said. “It is the original punk rock.”
The new environment afforded greater exposure for The Reverend and company’s 1992 debut Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em and 1993 follow-up Full Custom Gospel Sounds Of..., and while the band did not follow other ’90s alternative acts into mainstream success, it did build up a substantial cult following. It might be 15 years, seven LPs (including a Christmas album), four record labels and two drummers (with Scott “Chernobyl” Churilla having replaced Paul Simmons, who had replaced Bentley) later, but the The Reverend continues to bring out the faithful. Indeed, the band has found itself part of a larger underground scene that ranges from sleazy southern hard rockers Nashville Pussy (who will be opening for The Reverend on Tuesday), to psychobilly groups like Denmark’s HorrorPops, (who combine rockabilly with punk and horror themes).
“I think the ‘look’ of the crowd explains a lot of the scene and the music,” Lisa Simmons said. “Think (alternative online pinup magazine) SuicideGirls for the ladies and Skinquake tattoo artists for the guys – it’s vintage meets modern defiance culture.”
But The Reverend’s fan base is not the product of image alone. While the band has a reputation for hard partying (fueled, to no small extent, by songs like Gospel Sounds’ “Bales of Cocaine”), the members tour constantly – claiming to perform 150 shows a year.
Last year, Bloomington-born indie band Murder By Death toured three times with The Reverend, including a performance at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D.
“It’s pretty rad to be able to watch one of the best live bands on the planet for free every night and then have beers with them after the show,” Matt Armstrong, bassist of Murder By Death said. “I think we as a band were all inspired to practice a little harder after watching those guys every night.”
Still, lest fans think that the years have turned The Reverend and company into workaholic bores, Armstrong added, “There are lots of stories from those tours, but I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing you’d want to print.”