I recently talked with Jim “Reverend Horton” Heath of cult rockabilly, punkabilly, psychobilly, whateveryouwannacallitbilly legends Reverend Horton Heat. That he was making last minute tour arrangements for a stand-in to replace his drummer who was marooned by the Nashville floods didn’t stop me from picking his brain about rock ‘n’ roll. Or about Auburn. Duh.
I broke the ice with a story Russell had just told me at Byron’s. That led to his story about, yeah, Frank Ford and Charles Barkley. Which led to a brief (but, thanks to TWER’s trademark visual aids, embellished) discussion about the 50’s Revival in the early 1970’s (focusing on Auburn’s particular experience, of course), the re-rise of rockabilly, the birth of psychobilly, and the secret to rock ‘n’ roll.
The War Eagle Reader: I just had lunch with a friend of mine who is haunted by the sound of your voice, because back in the 90s, he did the punk show [Mystery Playhouse] on WEGL and the girl who did the rockabilly show would always cut off his last song with some “You’re listening to Psychobilly Freakout” promo drop you did for her. I think the show was actually called Psychobilly Freakout. He said you had some crazy laugh. It was like you were mocking him.
Jim Heath: Ha, that’s funny. I actually have a really good friend who played basketball for Auburn.
Heath: Frank Ford – he played when Charles Barkley was there. I didn’t know him back then.
TWER: Really? How’d you meet him?
Heath: He was just a fan of the band and then we became really good friends.
TWER: Did he tell you any good Barkley stories?
Heath: Yeah, he said he trash-talked the whole time, just trash-talked the whole game. If he was playing, he was talking. I figured he was probably like that.
TWER: Have y’all ever played Auburn? I don’t think you have. I think I would have heard about it.
Heath: We may have been there at some point, but I don’t think we have.
TWER: I know The Stray Cats played here in ’84 and in the early 70s, there were a lot of 50s revival bands coming through Auburn.
Click here for more photos from the Vince Vance and the Valiants show at the Student Act in late ’72 or early ’73.
Heath: Well, actually, in the 70’s my very first band was a 50’s cover band. I think a big influence on us when we were kids was the movie American Graffiti. Yeah, in the 70’s, all of a sudden there was a big resurgence and a lot of interest in the 50’s.
TWER: Yeah, I think one of them was called Teen Angel or something like that, and then some other band I can’t remember the name of (yeah, it was Vince Vance and the Valiants)…
Click here for more photos from the Teen Angel revue-whatever-this-is…
Heath: I don’t think I’ve heard of Teen Angel, I don’t think but there were a lot of bands that would play 50s hits and play the college circuit and have their guy doing rockabilly stuff and then maybe a girl that sang doowop while the guy was playing Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano or Bo Diddley kind of stuff. But as far as the rockabilly thing… in England, I mean, in some respects it never died in England. In the 70s they had these really cool rockabilly bands, Matchbox is the most notable.
That was when the psychobilly kind of started with The Meteors and the Polecats. But that psychobilly scene in the late 70s, the main band was The Meteors. They have this fan group called The Wreckin’ Crew and if you say The Meteors suck, they’ll beat the crap out of you. They’ll kill you.
But in the early 80s, what really brought rockabilly in the consciousness of America was The Stray Cats. For me, this was great. It was like, all the stuff I used to play growing up from the early 60s and Carl Perkins and Elvis and Johnny Cash and all that stuff was coming back. My first 50s band was in 1975 that did all that stuff in high school. But The Stray Cats, that was a big deal.
We thought there were a lot of bands that were going to be huge. We didn’t realize it’d just be The Stray Cats. But when I talk to a lot of guys who were there in the 50’s, they tell me they really didn’t call themselves rockabilly in the 50’s. Maybe that came on more in the 70’s. They’re like ‘we just called it rock ‘n’ roll.”
TWER: What’s the secret to rock ‘n’ roll?
Heath: The secret to rock ‘n’ roll is that you got to have a really good, running van. As long as you have that and you’re willing to drive and go play gigs in new places, then you’re going to make it as long as you’re still working on your music and getting your songs and band better and better. You can be the best damn band in the world, but if you’re not man enough to get out there in a van to Wichita, Kansas and play the [worst] gig of you’re life, you’re never going to make it.