Born Again

It’s a “Whole New Life” for Reverend Horton Heat

Reverend Horton Heat
Reverend Horton Heat

Frenetic rock 'n' roll Gretsch guitar shredding at the altar of Sun Records topped with tongue-in-check country lyrics that rely on double entendres is nothing new to the music world. The classic style goes back as far as, well, the legendary Sun Records sessions of the early '50s. But add possessed vocal screams and howls that heighten the flames of high-octane rockabilly vibrato, and you can only be referring to the Reverend Horton Heat.

For the better part of three decades, that band has spotlighted an alt-music cult legend who is often confused for his band's name. That man is Jim Heath, who—alongside longtime stand-up bass thumper Jimbo Wallace—has entertained his legions of fans with tireless tours up and down the highways and byways of the United States and abroad.

Heath and Wallace, who have weathered the rotation of a few able-bodied double bass drummers over the past 30 years, have a new album, aptly titled Whole New Life, via Chicago-based Victory Records. The band's 12th studio effort—and first since 2014's REV—proves it's never too late to teach an old dog a new trick.

The title of the new release is underscored by the additions of veteran Dallas drummer Arjuna "RJ" Contreras (Eleven Hundred Springs, Grammy-winning nuclear polka band Brave Combo) and precociously slick West Virginia blues piano player Matt Jordan to the mix.

And if that's not enough, Heath has expanded his vocal range to add menacingly fun vocals that are more than road-tested and built for speed in higher registers.

Coming to 191 Toole with their latest incarnation, Reverend Horton Heat will be hitting the Tucson stage to showcase the new album and play old crowd favorites with the newly expanded line-up.

Heath says the goal of the album was "just to kind of get better at singing, I guess. I got a vocal coach and started working a lot on my vocals. I did that for about a year before we even recorded the album. There are quite a few songs on the album where I sing a little bit higher. Some phrases are way higher than I have ever sang before."

Does it mean his voice will be lighter?

"Well, actually, I think I am actually screaming and making crazier noises on this album, more than I have in the past," Heath says. "I think with a loud rock and roll band, a lower voice gets lost in the sound, and I didn't necessarily want to just sing higher. I kind of just wanted to improve my range."

While Heath knew plenty about chord theory and music theory, he'd never really studied singing, but he's glad he did.

"There's way more technical aspects to it that I never knew about," he says. "I'd like to be a better singer, and I'd like to be a better guitar player."

Heath notes that a good chunk of the Heat discography is built on the classic rock 'n' roll sound, which was pioneered by the likes of piano players such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. But while he had that sound on his album courtesy of studio keyboard player Tim Alexander of Asleep at the Wheel, Alexander didn't like to tour, so he didn't have keyboards in his live show until Jordan came along.

"So, to have that rock and roll sound in the band all the time is just great," Heath says. "Matt and R.J. both sing harmonies. It's really refreshing for me to just play rhythm guitar without having to sing. It's a lot of fun to dance around and play lead guitar parts and watch Matt really kill on a piano solo, and make the crowd go crazy."

Jordan cut his teeth on blues and New Orleans jazz, but when Heath checked his music out on CD and YouTube, he knew the kid had it.

"I went out to see him and he gave me his business card and his CD and it was great," Heath recalls. "I said, 'Listen, man, you can do this rock and roll thing.' He's got a great look, he's a great entertainer."

The new album may be the most versatile one that Heath and the band has made in more than three decades of recording music. The opening salvo is the title track "Whole New Life," which showcases Heath's higher octave rockabilly vibrato rasp and Jordan's glorious boogie-woogie ivory tickles.

"Hog-Tyin' Woman" is a Stray Cats strut crossed with a Cramps hypnotic '50s stroll and "Don't Let Go of Me" kills it with Heath's guitar virtuoso coolness.

"Ride Before the Fall" has a crisp cowboy-gallop bass intro that is sharp as cheddar with Heath's spaghetti Western guitar picking. Contreras is a superb beat-keeper, flexing bash-and-pop muscle on the Batusi-dance inducing "Got It in My Pocket."

Now with a new album cut, the reward for the band is playing the new songs in front of a live audience, along with crowd favorites such as "400 Bucks," "Wiggle Stick," "Psychobilly Freak Out" and the band's first-ever single, "Big Little Baby."

When it comes down to it, Heath and his band like nothing more than jumping onstage at each venue on the tour and letting loose with high-end musical craftsmanship, stage antics and fun-loving lyrics that add up to an energy-packed rock 'n' roll show.

And while Heath is some four decades into his journey with Reverend Horton Heat, he still has a dream.

"My ultimate goal, besides winning a Grammy and having a platinum album, is to have the Grammys have a category called Rock and Roll," he says.