The Reverend Horton Heat is perhaps the most popular psychobilly artist of all time, his recognition only rivaled by the esteem generated by the genre's founders, the Cramps. The Reverend (as both the three-man band and its guitar-playing frontman were known) built a strong cult following during the '90s through constant touring, manic showmanship, and a twisted sense of humor. The latter was nothing new in the world of psychobilly, of course, and Heat's music certainly kept the trashy aesthetic of his spiritual forebears. The Reverend's true innovation was updating the psychobilly sound for the alternative rock era. In his hands, it was something more than retro-obsessed kitsch -- it had roaring distorted guitars, it rocked as hard as any punk band, and it didn't look exclusively to pop culture of the past for its style or subject matter. Most of the Reverend's lyrics were gonzo celebrations of sex, drugs, booze, and cars, and true to his name, his concerts often featured mock sermons in the style of a rural revivalist preacher. The band's initial recordings were released by that bastion of indie credibility, Sub Pop, at the height of the grunge craze; after a spell on the major label Interscope, the Reverend Horton Heat returned to the independent world, still a highly profitable draw on the concert circuit.
Reverend Horton Heat -- the man, not the band -- was born James C. Heath in Corpus Christi, Texas. Growing up, he played in local rock cover bands around the area but was more influenced by Sun Records' rockabilly, electric Chicago blues, and country mavericks like Junior Brown, Willie Nelson, and Merle Travis. According to legend, he spent several years in a juvenile correction facility, and at 17 was supporting himself as a street musician and pool shark (according to the Reverend, however, the story was fabricated by Sub Pop to add color to his greaser image). Heath eventually moved to Dallas, where he found work at a club in Deep Ellum. There, he gave his first performance in 1985 as Reverend Horton Heat, christened as such by the club's owner. Heat played the city's blues-club circuit for a while, performing mostly for polite crowds and swing dancing enthusiasts. Craving the excitement of a rock & roll show, and seeking a more financially rewarding avenue to help with his child support payments, Heat revamped his sound and moved into rock and punk venues. In 1989, he added bassist Jimbo Wallace to his band, and drummer Patrick "Taz" Bentley soon completed the lineup.
Reverend Horton Heat were a big hit around the area, and soon began touring extensively all around the country. They ultimately landed a deal with the prominent Seattle-based indie label Sub Pop, and in 1991 issued their debut album, Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, which featured fan favorites like "Eat Steak," "Marijuana," "Bad Reputation," and "Love Whip." The band kept building its audience through steady touring, and received considerable media attention for 1993's sophomore effort The Full Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat. Produced by the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes, it spawned a minor MTV hit in "Wiggle Stick," and also included Heat staples "400 Bucks" and "Bales of Cocaine."
Having amassed a significant underground following, Horton Heat signed a major-label deal with Interscope in 1994, and debuted that year with a joint release between Interscope and Sub Pop, Liquor in the Front (subtitled "Poker in the Rear" for anyone who missed the first double-entendre). This time around, Heat had an even more unlikely producer in Ministry's Al Jourgensen; he also had major-label bucks, which contributed to a ratcheting up of the hell-raising lifestyle he often sang about, and eventually the temporary worsening of a drinking problem. In the meantime, drummer Bentley left the band later in 1994 to join Tenderloin; he was replaced by Scott "Chernobyl" Churilla.
Horton Heat returned in 1996 with It's Martini Time, which featured several nods to the swing and lounge revival scenes emerging around that time; as a result, the title track became a minor hit, and the album became their first to chart in the Top 200. That year, Heat made his small-screen acting debut thanks to his on-stage preacher schtick, which earned him a guest spot on the acclaimed drama Homicide: Life on the Street. The following year, he appeared on The Drew Carey Show. The band's final major-label album, Space Heater, arrived in 1998; after its release, the gigantic label mergers of that year resulted in the band being dropped from Interscope. In the wake of their exit, Sub Pop released a 24-song best-of compilation, Holy Roller, in 1999, covering their entire output up to that point.
Undaunted, they continued to tour, and in 2000 recorded the more straightforward rockabilly album Spend a Night in the Box for the Time Bomb label. This time, Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary manned the production booth. The Reverend next surfaced on Artemis Records with 2002's Lucky 7, his hardest-edged album in quite some time. Its single, "Like a Rocket," was selected as the theme song for that year's Daytona 500 race. Buoyed by the publicity, Heat signed a new deal with Yep Roc in 2003. His first album for the label, Revival, appeared the following year, as did a live DVD. In 2005, he gave the world its first psychobilly holiday album, We Three Kings. Three years later, the frontman unveiled his side project Reverend Organdrum, which explored a wider range of retro sounds with Hi-Fi Stereo. Laughin' & Cryin' with Reverend Horton Heat appeared from Yep Roc in 2009, followed by 2012's 25 to Life, a live documentary/greatest-hits CD/DVD box set released to coincide with the group's 25th anniversary. ~ Steve Huey