Horton Has A Hayride
Horton Heat Revs Up the Holiday Season

By Lee Valentine Smith

The amped-up rock'n'roll of Revered Horton Heat has survived and thrived through grunge, pop, blues and country music revivals. The timeless nature of his delivery appeals to an incredibly wide swath of music lovers.

On his latest release Whole New Life, soft-spoken Jim Heath leads his able band through a raging set of upbeat rockabilly barnburners. He's currently road-testing some of the new stuff on a holiday-themed Hayride tour with like-minded pals Big Sandy, Junior Brown and The Blasters.

INsite caught up with the Texas-born singer-guitarist by phone from Minneapolis, moments before a recent show.

How's the Hayride going so far?

Well, last night was the first night and the only problem is the set was two hours and 15-minutes! That's a little bit long. I'm not sure what we're gonna do to make it a little more concise. We're promoting a new album and it's a Christmas tour and we have our guest Big Sandy come out and play six or seven songs. But it's all good.

Are you bringing props again this year?

Oh, we've got some really kitschy decorations. I've got this aluminum Christmas tree and this year I've got the base that turns the tree and the old color wheel. We've also got this giant, inflatable Rudolph. It's huge and really funny, man.

You've been doing some cool collaborative shows, did this tour emerge from your recent tour of 'residency' shows?

It kinda came out of the blue. This time of year, a lot of people want to go out and party and so it seemed to make sense. We've got a Christmas album from quite a while back now, but people really like that album, so now here we are.

Are you doing these shows like a variety showcase?

In a way, with Big Sandy. Then we have Junior Brown, and he plays right before us. Then The Blasters play right before him. I really have some of my biggest heroes and influences that are still around today, with me on this tour.

You go way back with The Blasters.

Oh yeah, way back. I first saw them in Dallas at the Hot Club, in like, 1980-something. So long ago.

And now here they are, opening for you.

I know. It's somewhat - well I've kinda got mixed feelings about it. But the good thing is, it adds to the show and people are showing up early, just to see them. A lot of times, our opening bands play so early, a lot of people aren't really out yet, but they're there for The Blasters. That's another reason why our set is long. But hey, they're getting a lot of great stuff.

In a situation like that, a lot of people might cut the show down a bit, maybe to a 45-minute set.

Yeah but it's Christmas - we've got a new album, and we've got Big Sandy. Christmas songs are quite a bit of a challenge, a lot of them are story-songs with a lot of lyrics to remember. We just did a a residency in Austin where we had guests, so we're always working on learning new music. It's fun but it's a constant challenge. Once we get it in there and we meet that challenge and it works, there's just nothing like it in the world.
We definitely do some crazy stuff.

Are you documenting all of this music? You're producing an incredible amount of material.

You know, I don't. And that might be why, it's just too much. I'd constantly be setting up the recorder!

You've collaborated with so many seemingly improbable artists at your Horton's Hayride festivals.

Yeah, Jello Biafra, Deke Dickerson, Robert Gordon, Unknown Hinson. We did a festival for a few years like that. We'd play and then here'd come Slim Jim Phantom or Mike Ness or Eddie Spaghetti. We've had so many people join us, it began to get a little too big of a dog to feed. It's a lot to learn, to get ready and then know that you're gonna do some Social Distortion songs. My guys are great players, and they can do it but it's a lot of work.

But all the names you mentioned shows the diversity of your appeal.

Yeah and a lot of that was born of the fact that we were able to adjust the setlist to be able to play one night at a blues club, the next, a honky-tonk country gig and the next night at a punk rock room or whatever.

Was that born of necessity?

Absolutely. We did that because we knew we didn't want to have real jobs! We wanted to tour, playing music all the time. We found if we could adjust the set a little bit, it would make us fit into the venue. It made us very versatile.

Unlike so many bands, you not only survived but actively thrived during the grunge era of the early '90s.

Yeah somehow we ended up on Sub-Pop Records as our first label and that's just as the grunge thing was hitting. So we became part of that scene, too. A few years later we had "It's Martini Time" and we became part of the swing scene. And we've pretty much always been there with the rockabilly scene. It's just been a real blessing to be accepted.

The new album is a bit different than the rest of your catalog. You're really rocking those vocals.

You know, it is a little different and I think my vocals have changed a bit. A few years ago, I stated working with a vocal coach and I started increasing my range a little bit. Even at my age, I was able to do it!

The album offers a very positive message overall.

Yeah, it's pretty much positive love songs, thinking about the brighter side of a situation or the brighter side of life, with something zany and comical thrown in. And then having some straight rock and roll to wrap around it. It's a specific beat, straight-eights on the guitar and piano. You know, a lot of bands aren't doing the old-style rock and roll like they used to, so we're trying to bring that back a little bit.

Tell us a bit about the title-track. Is it autobiographical? It sounds like you have a lot of new things going on in your life.

A little bit but it's really just an old, vintage style lyric. Again, it's positive, it's about being happily-married and having chickens and - well, I guess somewhat it is autobiographical. I do have chickens and I am happily married - most of the time. But really it's just a wild, fast rock and roll song.

A good, rockin' song doesn't have to make any sort of linear sense.

You're right, some of the best rock and roll songs don't make sense at all. I mean, "Tutti Frutti"?! What is that about? But when you've got 'a-whop-bop-a-loo-bop,' what more do you need?

It's much more of a raw, in-the-moment feeling than a Dylanesque song with a specific or implied message.

Yeah, when rock and roll came out, it was just wild. Then the Beatles came in and they were, maybe half the time, a rockabilly band in the early days. But my opinion is, somewhere around where the Beatles went psychedelic, rock and roll was gone for a while. That straight-eight feel of rock'n'roll was dead until the birth of punk rock. But it all comes back around and playing rock'n'roll is still a real, living thing of the moment. That's just exciting to me.

Reverend Horton Heat plays Thursday, December 20 at the Masquerade. Showtime is 7 p.m. For more information, please visit masqueradeatlanta.com.

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