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STICKIN' IT to Christmas

Rockabilly legends Reverend Horton Heat give Christmas a good going over with Horton’s Holiday Hayride

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Leave it to an artist like Jim Heath, who’s been obsessed with the rowdy, rollicking side of Americana for 30 years, to turn Christmas into a hell-raising, downhome party of guitar-slinging, face-blasting proportions. Heath, longtime frontman of psychobilly godfathers Reverend Horton Heat, started the Horton’s Holiday Hayride specialty show a few years back, but its roots lie much deeper—in the Rev’s 2005 album We Three Kings: Christmas Favorites, which Heath says is still the band’s strongest seller. The Holiday Hayride has flourished thanks to another quirk of Reverend Horton Heat’s prolific career: Their focus the last 10 years has been in multi-night residencies, which have increased the opportunity to form longstanding relationships with guest headliners and keep Reverend Horton Heat ticking into its fourth decade of hard-rocking, fun-loving success.
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Folio Weekly: What’s different about Horton’s Holiday Hayride this year?
Jim Heath: This one’s going to focus on quite a few more Christmas songs than the shows we’ve done in the past. Also, we’re going to have Big Sandy, The Blasters, and Junior Brown as our guests; we’ve been doing a lot of guest spots like that the last decade, where we have people come and join us onstage in the middle of our set. Big Sandy will most likely want to do a Christmas song or three, and Junior Brown, man, he’s a monster musician. Incredibly, over-the-top talented—one of the most dynamite guitar players ever.

Why Christmas music, especially for a band like Reverend Horton Heat, which has described itself as “Stewed, Screwed and Tattooed” in the past?
The Christmas album we did in 2005 is one of our most consistent sellers! A lot of people like it, not least because it was more of a straight-up, G-rated Christmas album—on purpose, too. There are no “Who Put the Dick on Snowman?” kinds of songs; they’re all straight-up “Frosty,” “Rudolph” and “Silver Bells” style. It really transcends all age groups, from grandparents all the way to kids. And that’s a big thing for us, since none of our other albums are G-rated. [Laughs.]

You mentioned the guest spots—how challenging is it when you play, say, six nights in one city with different backing bands each night?
It’s real fun, even though we really don’t get to rehearse. Me and Jimbo [Wallace, Reverend Horton Heat’s longtime stand-up bass player] have to be ready to play the songs note for note, right off the bat. But one thing that’s nice is getting to connect with each city a little bit. Normally, we pull into town in the afternoon and leave in the middle of night, so we can’t do much besides play the gig. We’ve been doing tours like that for so long—six nights on, one night off—and we’re used to it, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

That determination and work ethic might be two of Reverend Horton Heat’s most important calling cards, though.
Absolutely. It seems like an old cliché, but in reality, the stick-to-it thing is what people don’t want to do. They want it handed to ’em. That’s one problem with our world. With young bands, I try to impart this wisdom: Get a really good-running van, and then spend a lot of money making sure that van is going to run well and get you to all the gigs. Put good tires on it. Sometimes they’re disappointed, because they wanted me to say, “If you play this kind of music that way, you’ll get a record deal.” Success has nothing to do with any of that. It has to do with taking your music out to the people. And that requires a van.

It also requires a desire to play what you love and stick with it, something Reverend Horton Heat has done since the ’80s.
You have to be willing to pursue your passion. Which is crazy, because I came to that realization by hanging around the art world. I worked and lived at an art gallery in Dallas for a while, and I saw that having your own style was super-important. I never met a painter who would do one abstract painting, then a portrait, then another that was realism or impressionism. They would find their own voice and stick to it. That’s what art is. To me, that was clear as day: “I’m gonna stick to this rockabilly thing.” If you stick to your style, everything ends up coming out sounding like you, even if it’s the furthest thing from rockabilly.

Your last album, Rev, captured that sound in a minimal, raw, self-recorded and self-produced way that many critics considered your best ever.
I’ve got my own little studio with a bunch of gear, so recording became cool and fun again. I can mix to tape, add piano, all that cool, gooey stuff. I can go down there and start noodling around until I think I’ve got something cool, then refine it as much as I want. It’s a lot of work, and it’s always scary. Whenever it’s time to start a new album, I think, “Oh, God, I don’t know if I can do this again!” That’s one side of my brain; the other side is telling me, “That’s the way you’ve always felt. You can do it!” So I dive in and keep banging around until all of a sudden I’ve got these songs. What’s the saying? Ten percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration? It’s a lot of work, but that’s all we do. Might as well work on something as fun as writing songs.

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