Update: Sadly, Billy Block lost his struggle against cancer after a valiant fight on March 11, 2015. The following NEKST interview took place last summer.
“It’s funny,” says Billy Block, perched on his living room sofa. “I’m thought of as an entrepreneur, radio host and/or the PT Barnum of Americana, but they often forget to mention I’m a musician. I love to play drums, it’s my passion.”
Block’s easy going style, dry humor and tireless promotional time clock instantly established him as an authentic Music Row character when he arrived in 1995. He humbly thanks a lot of people for helping him along the way in the following interview, but his own drive was undeniably a key success factor. Over the years Block has served as musician, songwriter, producer, promoter, music supervisor and TV/Radio personality. His resume includes everything from community-based projects like the Silver Stars Talent Search to hosting and co-producing his own show on CMT. Many of the artists that he began championing at the first Western Beat Barn Dances, like Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams and Buddy Miller, have today become Americana elite.
But perhaps Block’s biggest accomplishment and one that has touched the lives of countless young artists is that his shows have always served as an Ellis Island for talented new Nashville arrivals, a place they could perform and be welcomed. “I’ve always considered myself an artist advocate,” says Block. “I’m drawn to the guys that are a little left of center. I’ve always called it, bringing the margins to the mainstream.”
Block’s wife Jill recently confirmed that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Metastatic Melanoma and the community has rallied to help him and his family navigate this challenge. Block has remained positive, choosing to continue working as much as possible. “I haven’t shed a single tear over my condition,” he says bravely. “The only time I cry is when I think about how much love has been poured out on my behalf.”
Here then is the story of how Western Beat came to Nashville and became a household name…
NEKST: What led to your leaving L.A.?
Billy Block: Jill and I met in ’91 and things in LA were great for us, but it was changing—the mud slides, the riots and even the musical landscape. I was the house drummer for ten years at the Palomino for the Ronnie Mack Barn Dance and when we arrived in Nashville I basically brought the Barn Dance idea with me. I make no bones about it. Ronnie set the stage by creating relationships for me with many of the people that have been integral in the development of Americana. The beginning of our transition was when my band the Bum Steers came to Nashville to compete for the Jim Beam Country Talent search in ’93. Paul Zamek was instrumental in making that happen. That week in Nashville we did a Western Beat show at Douglas Corner and finally we moved in ’95. You and Susana hired me to work at MusicRow and without that opportunity we couldn’t have made the move. Our friends Peggy Newman and Mike McClellan gave us a place to live until we found our home. Representing MusicRow I felt like I had landed at the epicenter of the music industry. Everybody was on fire. We went to parties at Warner Bros. for example, where I met leaders like Jim Ed Norman and became friends with Bob Sapporiti.
NEKST: When did the Barn Dances begin?
Billy Block: I’d been in Nashville for about seven months and Duane Jarvis and I were having dinner. I threw out the idea of doing a Nashville Barn Dance. He said, “If anyone could, it’s you.” It was such a pivotal moment. What if he had said no? I went to Johnny Potts, the owner of the Sutler and asked, ‘Other than Monday what’s the worst night of the week?’ He said, “Tuesday.” I said, ‘Give me a month’s worth of Tuesdays.’ So in Feb. ’96, in the heart of winter, we started the Western Beat Barn Dance. It was Duane Jarvis, Walter Hyatt, Kristi Rose plus Jim Lauderdale and Billy Montana filled in at the last minute. The turnout was great. There was talk at that time about the Californication of Nashville and lots of interest. I was also playing a Monday night gig with Walter that covered jazz, country and swing and remember him saying, “I’m ubiquitous in my obscurity,” which is one of the best lines I ever heard.
NEKST: Why have a Western Beat program book?
Billy Block: We always did a magazine in LA and I wanted to continue that tradition. It helps promote the artists by giving people something to take home that reminds them who they heard. And I love to write. I wrote for MusicRow as its LA correspondent before moving to Nashville and for Music Connection magazine in LA.
NEKST: What about radio?
Billy Block: Western Beat radio started with help from Jon Grady who was at Mercury. We did a tribute night for Hank Williams and Grady came to the show because the label was putting out a Hank compilation. At the end of the evening I threw out into the crowd, “I sure wish we had a sponsor so we could do a live radio show.” John offered to give me a $1,000 a month which was enough to get on Lightning 100 for a couple of hours each week. But the station didn’t like the name Barn Dance, it was too hip; so we changed it to Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival.
NEKST: Since then you’ve taken the show to a number of stations?
Billy Block: Yes. I had 5 years at WSIX, 8 years at WKDF, 6 years on 102 and one year on Lightning.
NEKST: With everything you were doing to support Americana and its artists I’m guessing Western Beat and the Americana Music Association became natural allies?
Billy Block: Strangely, we’ve been friendly competitors. I was on the first board of the AMA. I wanted to include blues, cajun, zydeco and invite the kids from Texas as well. At that time the AMA leadership had a more narrow vision for Americana. Today they have integrated it a lot more. So I chose to blaze my own trail and create my own brand. But I’ve promoted the conference and the Americana brand for years. I guess I’ve been a bit of a rebel because even in the early days I started putting the music on radio, TV and helping to build stars. I had 170 syndicated country stations playing Western Beat Radio for ten years.
NEKST: Have other organizations reached out to you?
Billy Block: I did a number of Western Beat shows on the Riverfront for the CMA and was honored they called and allowed me to present artists like Rodney Crowell, Hal Ketchum and so many more. I loved doing that and would do it again given the opportunity. Being inclusionary and welcoming everybody is the best way to enjoy music. I just love promoting these kids who are trying to make a living playing music and that’s what I always tried to do, give them a platform on TV, radio and anywhere else we could go.
NEKST: Has Nashville been everything you hoped?
Billy Block: Nashville attracts the most phenomenal musicians and artists in the world and I see some of them every week on my shows. Almost any night of the week there’s great music—the Whisky Jam is packed on Monday nights, Western Beat on Tuesdays, Listening Room almost every night. You can go to 3rd and Lindsley and watch Vince Gill play with the Time Jumpers or visit the Station Inn. Business-wise everyone is trying to navigate the new landscape, but it seems like there is always a new breakout artist and that won’t stop. So yes, I love this town—the people, the artists and the business—next to Jill and my family, Nashville’s the love of my life.
Editors Note: A letter to the AMA, written by former Americana Music Association Board member Nick Pellegrino, has been widely circulated online. It makes a compelling case for formerly recognizing Block’s contributions, plus contains a wealth of biographical information. Read it HERE.