--J.P.

Reverend
Horton Heat
Winner for: Rockabilly/Roots

At the risk of looking into a crystal ball and ending up with a bunch of broken glass, the recent parting of ways between Interscope Records and Jim Heath will likely be the best thing that's ever happened to the Reverend Horton Heat. Heath's association with the label seemed to change his songwriting trajectory from ascendant arc to depressing parabola. By the end of it all, he'd succumbed to lounge shtick, cute fag jokes, and, finally, production that made his band sound like Slow Roosevelt on a bad night--which is to say unlistenable. The worst part of it all was that, for a time, Heath seemed like the man you could count on to avoid all that shit. He began, of course, as Deep Ellum's virgin in a whorehouse--all smiles and suits and rockabilly when the thing was ripped jeans and tuneless rawk. It seemed like novelty--such early songs as "Eat Steak" and "Marijuana" didn't exactly help--until you noticed that Heath could play that guitar, and that his melodies were generally dead-on.

Then he went and put out his second record, The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat, in 1993. More than anything before or since, that album proved Heath was for real. His songwriting had grown to the point that it no longer merely served his style, but rose above it. You could listen to the peerless "Lonesome Train Whistle" and imagine it sounding equally great played by a country yodeler or a garage-rock band; you could listen to "Wiggle Stick" and forget about the easy puns; you could marvel at the verses of "Bales of Cocaine," even if you thought the joke wasn't funny. Heath had figured out the trick: Force people to look beyond the superficial stylism. The only way to do that was with songs as good as these.

He then promptly set about screwing everything up. He jumped from Sub Pop to Interscope, and each successive album seemed to have its very own bad concept: Liquor in the Front teamed the Rev with uber-fan Al Jourgensen, a pairing that looked interesting on paper but sounded misguided on disc; It's Martini Time seemed like little more than a marketing scheme to lure the smoking-jacket lounge crowd, as if they hadn't all been previously cross-enrolled in the rockabilly revivalist problem; and Space Heater tried to reduce the band's country and rockabilly leanings into a slick alt-rock record. Those whispers you hear are an A&R guy telling the group to choose between a radio hit and a pink slip. As Heath wasn't able to come up with something as transcendent as Semisonic's "Closing Time," the pink slip it was, though Heath insists the split was a mutual decision.

Had he insisted on such mood swings alone, those albums might have been worthwhile. Problem was, his songwriting started suffering at around the same time. About a third of Liquor upheld the standard of Gospel; Martini lowered the ratio to something like one-fifth; and by the time Space Heater rolled around, Heath's songwriting skills had gone so far south, they started running into penguins.

Now he's back where he started: a Dallas institution, a winner of Dallas Observer music awards, and a cult figure with something to prove, which is no doubt why he's releasing his next single on his own start-up indie, Fun Boy Records. And Jim Heath again has a small label to back him up, with Sub Pop's brand-new Holy Roller, a 24-song best-of that includes material from the Interscope years in addition to a cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Such returns to reality have a way of inspiring the good ones; witness Royal Trux's recent indie "comeback," Accelerator. (And was it Nelson Algren who said that revenge should be the primary motive behind all great writing?)

Heath's next move will determine whether Gospel was indeed the truth, or merely an aberration, whether he'll find himself on a more confident second lap or sitting in the back of Sol's Taco Lounge sipping Tanqueray. And those tacos ain't that good.

--Keven McAlester

Rob G and the Latin Pimps
Winner for: Latin/Tejano
"The mambo was a dance, it was a pulse, oh, hell, it was sex to a '50s nation busy hiding its libido between contraband pages of The Tropic of Cancer." So read the liner notes from Capitol Records' Mambo Fever: Volume 2 collection. "And a hot wind loaded with pheromones was what the white mainstream caught from our neighbors to the south." All that means is that Desi Arnaz had no 'splainin' to do when the wacky comedy of I Love Lucy took a breather and Arnaz and his orchestra swung into a brass-blaring workout of pepper-shaker maracas and thumping bongos. It was reverse ethnic imperialism, multicultural education of a most winning kind, and if it wasn't exactly true of cha-chas and cumbias that if you shook your ass hard enough your prejudice would follow, you'd be hard-pressed to underplay the importance of the Anglo Eisenhower years' getting a weekly dose of this stuff on one of the most popular series in the history of TV.

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