With the music industry undergoing seismic shifts in its business model, its technological underpinnings, and the trajectory of artists’ careers, it’s comforting to know that at least a few things never change. And one of those few things is the Reverend Horton Heat, aka Jim Heath, the Dallas, Texas, leader of the indie-rockabilly trio of the same name.
“I’m really lucky because my art form is playing music, which at the end of the day doesn’t have a lot to do with selling any records. Because that’s a technology called the recording industry,” says Heath, on a break from his latest tour. He’s gracious to a fault, polite when he speaks, his voice like a creaking hinge, frayed at the edges from years of howling ferocious rockabilly punk from stages all across the country.
“Playing music is getting up there playing in front of the folks every night,” he continues. “We think our bread and butter has always been playing live shows, and our records, CDs—over the long term they did okay for us, but we weren’t making a million off those types of sales.”
Which isn’t to say Heath and company—the band’s lineup currently includes bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla—haven’t had a long, full recording career. Beginning with 1990’s Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em on Sup Pop to the latest, Laughin’ and Cryin’ With the Reverend Horton Heat (2009) on Yep Roc, the band has released 10 records across a spate of labels, including a mid-career stopover on major Interscope.
They’re looking forward now to a 2013 release on new label Victory, an album Heath promises will be “edgier” than the band’s last couple.
“On the last project we got pretty country,” Heath explains, “and so basically we want to get back to the early records, the second and third records”—The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat and Liquor in the Front—“along those lines. More rock ’n’ roll.”
Still, the band’s reputation is staked on their first-rank road-warrior status; for years on end, the Reverend played more than 200 dates a year. That brutal, near-superhuman itinerary was reduced to a more tolerable schedule in recent times only because the band felt its relentless approach had actually oversaturated many markets, Heath says.
“We tour about 120 days out of the year now,” he says. “Then we’re back in Dallas for some one-offs, and to work really hard writing and recording. And also the paperwork. I don’t like to talk about that. That could ruin my life.
“But that’s still a really strong schedule, all things considered. We backed it down from 200 dates a year five or six years ago. We were playing so much, we were like a local band in every city in America. So we were getting paid like a local band. So we backed it down and were actually able to sell more tickets. We were kind of overexposed in so many markets for so many years.”
But though he may have eased back on the throttle, the Reverend doesn’t know the meaning of stop. Asked why he’s maintained such a withering schedule, long after most mere mortals would have shriveled and bent, he answers simply.
“Fear,” he says, with an expansive chuckle. “Fear that if I were to quit doing it, it would go away. Fear that if I were to quit doing it, they would come repossess my house. Do they repossess a house? I guess they just evict you.”
But writing off Heath’s longevity and penchant for ravenous touring to mere economic anxiety is selling him short. And anyone who’s ever seen him shake an entire club to its very foundations with his feverish punk-inflected swing would agree.
And Heath fesses up: he is indeed a lifer.
“When I was a kid I really got into lifelong artists—Ernest Tubbs, Willie Nelson, B.B. King,” he says. “I liked the idea of being a career artist rather than a hit-song type of flash in the pan.
“People say, when are you going to retire? I say, Willie Nelson is still playing. They say, oh, right. Well, the thing you have to remember is, Willie Nelson started out playing bass for Ray Price. Ray Price is still playing. Willie Nelson is the young guy.
“In the music business, once you’re a lifer, you really are a lifer. The retirement plan is, you don’t retire.”