THOUGH A HELLISH THUNDERSTORM rages outside, within the cozy confines of Austin’s famed Continental Club, excitement brews. Tonight, the Dallas based “Godfather of modern rockabilly,” Jim Heath — better known by his stage name, the Reverend Horton Heat — kicks off his week-long residency at the historic venue. Anointed the “Continental Church of the Reverend Horton Heat” by rain-soaked gig posters hung outside the club, this annual six-night event draws in Rev Heads from across Texas and beyond. While diehard Horton Heat fans consider each performance by Heath and his band to be a one-of-a-kind experience, tonight’s show, in particular, will be one for the ages. With the recent additions of former Eleven Hundred Springs drummer Arjuna “RJ” Contreras and blues piano wunderkind Matt Jordan, the band has expanded their core lineup from a trio to a foursome for the first time in the group’s 33-year history — growing their iconic sound in the process.
Tonight, Rev fans old and new will witness the latest musical chapter in the ongoing career of rockabilly’s biggest badasses.
As frontman Heath and his guy Friday, slap-bassist extraordinaire Jimbo Wallace, take the stage alongside their fresh-faced cohorts, lifelong fans are quickly reassured that the group’s latest incarnation hasn’t forgotten their psychobilly, punk-rock roots. Feeding off Contreras’ seemingly unlimited supply of rhythmic energy, the group tears expertly through the high octane, guitar-driven crowd pleasers, “Psychobilly Freakout” and “Lonesome Train Whistle” — off the band’s first two releases with the famous ’90s grunge label Sub Pop. Before the whiskey-soaked crowd has the chance to pick themselves back up, the Rev gives a knowing nod to Jordan, who immediately plunges the group headfirst into the titular lead single off the group’s upcoming album, Whole New Life, a playfully upbeat retro number tinged with echoes of ’50s piano rock. It’s here the foursome fully stretches the legs of its new outfit, with Heath and Contreras weaving around the charged, vintage-style rhythm of slap-bass and rock ’n’ roll piano combined. As the song’s bridge arrives, Jordan launches himself into the keys of his signature cherry-red piano, belting out a frantic jaunty solo with Jerry Lee Lewis-type precision. Though it’s their first time hearing the tune, audience members can’t help but chant along to the chorus. “Whole new life!” the crowd shouts back at Heath, a huge smile creeping across the frontman’s face.
“There’s no secret as to why the new record and single are both called ‘Whole New Life’,” says Contreras, days after the group’s Austin residency. “I think [Heath] sees this record as a rebirth of his group.”
Though today the group seems on top of the world, with a fresh lineup and an inspired new album under its collective belt, the Reverend’s road to rebirth was anything but a charmed process. In August 2017, following the unexpected departure of longtime drummer Scott Churilla, the band’s future seemed uncertain. “I’d written the songs for the latest album and was ready to introduce ‘em to the guys,” Heath says. “Then, just like that, we were without a drummer.”
Given the band’s permanently busy schedule, Heath and Wallace had no time to conduct an exhaustive audition process. “It worried us,” Wallace says. “We had to get the album out in a couple of days, ‘cause we were about to head back on tour with Fishbone. We didn’t know how we were gonna pull it off.”
Ultimately, the solution to this pressing dilemma came from the band’s close friend, Matt Hillyer, frontman for the honky tonk outfit Eleven Hundred Springs. Hillyer’s band had also recently parted with its drummer, Contreras, who remained on good terms with the group. “Matt texted me right away, saying, ‘RJ doesn’t play with us anymore. I think he’s looking for a gig,’” Heath recalls. “Basically, Matt just gave me his drummer. It just goes to show you can’t burn bridges.”
A longtime Reverend Horton Heat fan, Contreras jumped at the chance to play with the band. “Jim initially asked if I could come to the studio just to record a couple songs,” Contreras recalls. “Then a couple songs became, ‘Oh, there’s actually six.’ Finally, 72 hours before this life-changing recording session, he sent me eight tracks! That’s when I realized, oh wow, I’m recording the entire record! [Laughs] Jim never said, ‘This is your audition,’ but that’s what it turned out to be. I mean, weirdest audition ever! ‘Your audition is to record the next record with us and see how it goes.’ [Laughs] No pressure!”
Contreras faced daunting odds, yet in the end, his diverse musical background proved to be just what the band needed. “I was accidentally the perfect fit,” he says. “Every aspect of my musical background is apparent in the many styles the Rev plays. I grew up playing R&B, soul and blues. I was a jazz studies major in college, and I’ve played nuclear polka with Brave Combo — which, coincidentally, had the same kind of beats as in this band’s more aggressive punk tracks.” Even as a veteran recording artist, Heath couldn’t help but be impressed. “RJ was really fundamental to us doing the album right,” Heath explains. “He had the basic tracks done in two days. It was crazy.”
Satisfied with his “audition,” the band invited Contreras on tour shortly after.
While it was Contreras’ addition that injected a renewed energy into the group’s lineup, it’d be the addition of Jordan on the piano that’d usher Reverend Horton Heat into the next phase of its career. Having played a few one-off shows with the band in the past, Jordan — who, at the time, was working as a solo blues artist — came aboard as a full-time member in September 2017, joining Contreras as the group’s first new members in six years. While the addition of a pianist to the Reverend Horton Heat lineup may seem like a major change for some fans, for Heath such an addition has been a long time coming. “The whole time Reverend Horton Heat has been going, I’ve wanted a rock ’n’ roll piano player,” he explains. “Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out straight eighth notes — that’s true rock ’n’ roll. For my money rock died in the ’60s somewhere and didn’t come back until the punk rock bands were again pounding out straight eighths.”
In addition to supplying these rockin’ straight eighths, the addition of a fourth member has opened creative doors for Heath. For the longest time, Heath has, out of necessity, worn many hats as the Reverend Horton Heat. “For a while,” he says, “Reverend Horton Heat was the power trio around here, man. It was all me — me singing, me playing rhythm guitar, me playing the solos, and me mimicking the piano part if we did a cover song! What’s nice is having another player to take solos.” While Jordan has no doubt given the Rev some much-needed breathing room, the musical benefits of an additional player run so much deeper. “[This lineup change] has really given Jim space to explore other musical avenues that he wasn’t able to touch on before,” says Reverend Horton Heat guitar tech Jonathan Jeter. “As someone who’s followed their career for ages, I’d say the band is probably at my favorite point. Sonically, they’re bigger than ever.”
According to Heath’s close friend, Ameripolitan country trailblazer Dale Watson, this sort of musical exploration is to be expected of musicians of Heath’s caliber. “When you do what you do long enough, you reach a point where you can experiment and feel safe about it, because your sound is always gonna be rooted,” Watson says. “When you experiment by throwing a piano into the group, for example, you feel okay about it because it’s still you. In other words — when Johnny Cash sang a Nine Inch Nails song, he was still Johnny Cash.”
Heath’s current experiment with the sounds of vintage-style rock ’n’ roll is perhaps most apparent on the group’s latest album. As is the case with the Reverend Horton Heat albums preceding it, Whole New Life introduces a sound that pays homage to Heath’s lifelong influences while simultaneously blazing its own musical trail. “It’s really interesting the way the record sounds. It harkens back to the golden age of rock, but there’s a couple of pretty contemporary-sounding tracks too,” Contreras says. “I don’t want to make it seem like an old timer’s rockabilly record. The way it sounds sonically, though, and the lyrical content give the album a fresh spin on a retro vibe. Jim doesn’t have a record like that in his catalog yet.”
“The title track, ‘Whole New Life,’ is a pretty rippin’ little rock ’n’ roll number,” Heath says. “It has that killer piano I’m talking about. I think a lot of these songs are rock ’n’ roll in a way that not many bands or artists do anymore. For me, it’s a rock ’n’ roll album as much as it is rockabilly. Vintage rock ’n’ roll — I think we’re gonna bring that back.”
In addition to the album’s instrumentation, sharp-eared listeners will notice a certain kind of warmth on Whole New Life that isn’t readily found on most modern recordings. “[Whole New Life] sounds like a retro sort of album down to the way it was mixed,” Jordon says. “Jim was going for a sonic balance that he hears on a lot of the old rockabilly records.” A longtime enthusiast of sound production, Heath has mixed many of the Reverend Horton Heat’s albums at the band’s personal studio in Dallas. “I like to include a lot of the goofy stuff from the ’50s in my mixdowns,” Heath says. “That includes a lot of what I call ‘goofy fades’ and ‘cheesy reverbs.’ I go for the distortion too, because, on a lot of those vintage records, they really pumped up the distortion. I got some really nice tape machines I use, as well as vintage mics. I have a bunch of tube mic clones I made myself — clones of some of the best microphones in history, from the ’50s!”
Though Whole New Life’s instrumentations and mixes steal the show, longtime fans will notice the record’s lyrical content and subject matter represent an equally interesting departure for the band. “The album is really heartfelt,” Heath says. “For some reason, this is the most positive album I’ve ever done. Reverend Horton Heat can be a little dark and kinda dangerous. I don’t think we’ve lost that danger, we still have that going on in our musical arrangements — with some cool dark-sounding minor keys.” Even though it’s their first release with the group, the record’s departure from the group’s normal lyrical subject matter isn’t lost on Contreras and Jordan. “A lot of the lyrical content harkens back to the ’40s or ’50s — to the golden, olden times,” Contreras says. “The song ‘Whole New Life,’ for example … it’s describing someone who’s finally breaking out of a country kinda lifestyle — making it in the big city.” Adds Jordan: “[The album] is indeed optimistic. It’s something I haven’t heard a lot … songs about being good and being true, but also kicking ass.”
Though fans have universally received the band’s latest offerings with open arms, perhaps the one most excited about the group’s current incarnation is Heath himself. “We’ve had so many amazing players over the course of our career,” Heath says, “but we’ve really got something special with this lineup right now. This next release just might be our best album yet.”
Considering that over the course of their career, the Reverend Horton Heat has employed some of the Lone Star State’s most talented drummers, and has backed up such iconic performers as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Lemmy Kilmister, Heath’s excitement speaks volumes to his faith in his group’s current potential.
Though the Rev’s new vintage-inspired album may be a change for some, this shift certainly isn’t without precedent. Birthed out of the eclectic Dallas Deep Ellum music scene of the ’80s, the Rev’s music has always kept listeners on their toes. “I think that’s one of the keys to our longevity,” Wallace says. “Not a lot of our songs sound the same.”
“We cover a lot of different genres within the rockabilly style,” says Heath. “We’ll play rumba, country shuffle, rock ’n’ roll, punk rock and even metal, all within the framework of the Reverend Horton Heat. It’s really about keeping an open mind and trying to have fun with it.”
With this established yet flexible framework, the band cut their teeth in the wild west that was the ’90s alternative scene, ultimately securing a record deal with grunge rock favorite Sub Pop Records. “We’ve never been afraid to take chances,” Wallace says. “We sounded nothing like any of the other Sub Pop bands. Our sound was completely different from Nirvana or Soundgarden, but we had just enough of an edge to us. That label really took a chance on us.”
While their mainstream hits came from the group’s harder, more aggressive Sub Pop releases — including 1991’s Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em and 1993’s Full Custom Gospel Sounds — the band’s 12 albums have run the gamut of musical styles, from the swing-leaning sounds of 1996’s It’s Martini Time and 2000’s Spend the Night in the Box to the more rock-centered, occasionally country tones found on 2009’s Laughin’ and Cryin’ and 2014’s REV. “It was after we all played a Stevie Wonder song together that I turned to RJ and said, ‘This band really can play anything,’” Jordan recalls. “Jim can play just about every type of music on that Gretsch of his. Sometimes it feels like I’m just trying to keep up.”
Perhaps the reason Heath and Wallace have found such success jumping between styles over the years is that they put in their due diligence. To witness Heath and Jimbo play together is to hear the end result of a lifetime spent honing talent. “It’s no surprise those guys have achieved what they have. They’re really into the craft,” Contreras says. “Jimbo, he’s gotta be one of the most consistent players I’ve ever seen in my life. Guy is a bass playing machine. And Jim, that guy is a musician’s musician. He’ll practice after the shows! We’re all usually beat after two hours of drinkin’ whiskey and playin’ music. We’ll come onto the tour bus, hootin’ and hollerin’ and whatnot, and we’ll find Jim in the back practicing — playing licks off his phone, then playing it right back on guitar. And we just got off the stage an hour ago!”
The band’s dedication to the craft and willingness to explore new sounds has set them apart from their peers, but it’s their dedication to the road that has placed Reverend Horton Heat in a league all their own. For over three decades now, Heath and Wallace have painstakingly carved out a hard-earned reputation as Texas’ hardest-working live act. “Reverend Horton Heat is on a perpetual tour,” Contreras says. “Most bands, they’ll release an album and go support it, then they’re done until the next album. With Jim and Jimbo, they’re touring irrespective of a new album. They’re like a traditional working band from way back.”
In the group’s heyday, it wasn’t uncommon for Wallace and Heath to play close to 250 gigs annually. “Throughout our travels, we’ve come across a lot of people who thought we lived in their hometown,” Wallace says, “because we’d come back so often.” Even today, the band tours at a rate that would put even the hungriest young indie buzz-band to shame. “I’ve worked with touring bands before,” Jeter says, “but these guys never stop! People ask for tour shirts at our merch tables. But honestly, given how much we’re on the road, it would be easier to print dates we’re home.”
Given the band’s hard-earned reputation, Contreras and Jordan knew full well that joining the Reverend Horton Heat on tour would be something akin to jumping onto a speeding bullet train. Even then, the newcomers have had their minds and bodies pushed to limits never before thought possible. “This gig is a contact sport,” Jordan says. “This is the fastest and longest I’ve ever played, and now I’m doing it eight days a week. As enjoyable and therapeutic as music is, it’s not always easy.”
“There was definitely a learning curve for the music,” Contreras adds, “but I struggled for months with the endurance curve. What amazes me about [Heath and Wallace] is that this seems easy to them! Those two have so much energy and zest for being road dogs — after three decades, they’re still putting themselves in front of crowds basically half the year.”
“Anyone can call themselves a professional musician,” Jordan says, “but actions speak louder than words. To witness the consistent, passionate performances given by Jim and Jimbo every … single … night — it’s inspiring.”
As Heath and Wallace leap headfirst into the latest chapter of their 33-year career, one can’t help but wonder what drives Texas’ hardest-working rock duo to not only continue touring with such breakneck ferocity but to also consistently push the boundaries of rockabilly to their limits in fresh, innovative ways. “I’m motivated a lot by fear,” Heath allows. “This really is living the dream. Playing music? C’mon, who else gets to do that? I’m afraid that if we quit doing this, it’ll all go away.”
With countless diehard fans located throughout the country and 12 groundbreaking albums behind them, it’s hard to imagine that an act like Reverend Horton Heat would ever simply fade into obscurity should the group ever cease operation. Good luck ever convincing a creative as driven as Jim Heath to simply rest on his laurels, though.
“When I was a kid, I’d read about musicians like Ernest Tubb or B.B. King — career artists who just kept going and going. Music was their whole life. I remember thinking, ‘Man, that’s how I’d do it if I played music.” Heath offers a warm, knowing chuckle. “I’m afraid I’m on the Willie Nelson retirement program — which means I’ll never retire.”