When, back in 1985, Jim Heath first focused in on rockabilly’s cause—pulling out the tones and tropes of rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest iteration after years spent in cover bands—there wasn’t much of a cause to speak of. Hair metal was fading away while grunge was coming into focus; coveting the youthful frenetics of the bygone ’50s didn’t yet have much purchase in the middle.
“When I really started focusing on it a lot, a long time ago, I had the idea that it was like the kicking dog of all music,” Heath offers. “It was really underrated.”
But, as he says, that was a long time ago. The scene’s style has grown into something substantial, sustainable, and Heath—better known as Reverend Horton Heat—rides along its crest as one of the prominent modern vanguards. His take on the era’s sound channels itself through dashes of surf, punk and bouts of silliness (mostly in the lyrics). The current Reverend outfit is a trio of Heath on guitars and vocals, upright bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla.
The band’s most recent full-length, aptly titled Rev, came out in 2014, and proved to be the band’s highest-charting release to date. Before that there had been a gap in releases, part of an emerging pattern for the group. The last decade have seen longer stretches of time between Reverend LPs, even though, by his own measure, Heath often finds himself in the studio. It’s just that while he’s in there, he’s found a preference for tinkering on singles, rather than full-length releases.
“This whole album concept thing, it’s from the ’60s and the ’70s,” he says. “And I’m into the ’50s, man; I like singles. We crank song by song out and see what happens. I’ve never really been big on trying to write a rock opera. I’m more of a rock ‘n’ roll guy.
“I understand the appeal of the album,” he continues. “But it’s just the way I work. The stuff that influences me, the great hit songs of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, were singles. They just threw together an album to go around them. I don’t want to throw together an album—I want to do a bunch of really good songs. ”
A few decades of building a fanbase mostly on a live show has tempered that opinion, too: the traditional, two-year cycle of album release, touring and then back to the studio for another eight to 12 songs doesn’t mesh well with the Heat’s fans. Heath’s found when he does put out a new album, its impact only emerges a year after the release, both in terms of radio interest and with fans. Plus, it’s hard to fit the songs into the road set at this point, so putting large batches of songs out into the ether leads to some frustrations.
“We got a catalogue of 140 songs that have been released,” Heath says. “We can only play about 20 [per night]. Just adding on album after album after album after album, in some ways, it was kind of making our fans mad.”
But as the rockabilly scene’s grown there’s simply been more fans, too, which, for Heath, means it’s been easier to keep to the live track, where he find the genre lands best. So when years pass between albums, it doesn’t mean Heath, who’s 56 now, is starting to idle.
“My art form is playing music, and that means playing live gigs,” he says. “Some of those years we didn’t have an album might’ve been some of our business road years ever.”
Tue, May 26 (7 pm)
Reverend Horton Heat
With Nekromantix, the Brains
Starlite Room, $26