LifeNotes: Americana’s Impresario Billy Block Passes
Billy Block, one of the founding figures of the Americana music movement, died on Wednesday afternoon, March 11, 2015 following a battle with cancer. He was 59.
Noted for his irrepressible salesmanship, unflagging positivism and unbridled enthusiasm, the ebullient Block was a champion of Americana music before the genre even had a name.
Best known as the creator and host of the weekly “Billy Block Show”/”Western Beat Barn Dance” in Nashville, he was a multi-faceted music-industry figure who was also a promoter, a songwriter, a record producer, an artist manager, a session drummer, a record-label entrepreneur, a bandleader, a recording artist, a music journalist and more.
When asked, “What do you do?” Block would respond, “What do you need?”
Among the stars who appeared on his show early in their careers are Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Ashley Monroe, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves.
With an Opry-style structure of revolving performers, the weekly show was a platform for many styles of roots music. The glue that held it together was Block’s genial emcee work, plus his leading the versatile house band that backed all the performers.
Instantly recognizable with his shock of white hair and ever-present smile, he was a hero to thousands of aspiring artists in Music City. His show has been called “The Ellis Island of Nashville” because of his reputation for welcoming newcomers and unsigned acts.
In addition to having his weekly club show and its radio program, he also founded Americana’s first TV series, a periodical, a record label and a weekly blues showcase, hence his notoriety as “Americana’s First Impresario” or “The Godfather of Americana.”
William Donald “Billy” Block began his career as a teenager in Houston, Texas. He was the drummer on early records by Freddy Fender. In 1978, he toured as a member of Billy Joe Shaver’s band.
He also toured and/or recorded with B.W. Stevenson, Townes Van Zant, Roy Head and Delbert McClinton in Texas. In addition, he became the Houston editor of Buddy: The Texas Music Magazine.
Block relocated to Los Angeles in 1985. Two years later, he became the drummer for “The Ronnie Mack Barn Dance” at The Palomino nightclub, broadcasting on KCSN radio.
In L.A., he worked for Disney as a bandleader, singer and dancer. As an actor, he appeared in national TV commercials for Miller Beer and Kentucky Fried Chicken, as well as Disney’s theme parks.
He was the roots-music correspondent for six years for L.A.’s Music Connection magazine. As a member of The Zydeco Party Band, he recorded three albums during his years on the West Coast. He was also the bandleader for a local, late-night TV variety/talk show.
In 1991, he started his “Western Beat” monthly showcases at an L.A. coffeehouse, broadcasting on KIEV radio. Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams and Buddy Miller were among the artists who performed at this. He consistently embraced musicians who were outside country music’s commercial mainstream, becoming a cornerstone personality for what later became known as “alt country” or Americana music.
In 1993, his band The Bum Steers traveled to Music City to compete in the Jim Beam Country Talent Search. He subsequently became the West Coast correspondent for MusicRow magazine.
He married singer Jill Rochlitz in 1993. Two years later, the couple decided to move to Nashville, thanks to a job offer from MusicRow for him to become the magazine’s sales representative.
In February 1996, he launched his weekly “Billy Block’s Western Beat Barn Dance” show. The first one featured Duane Jarvis, Walter Hyatt, Jim Lauderdale, Kristi Rose, Fats Kaplan and Billy Montana. It has been staged every Tuesday night, ever since.
The Sutler Saloon, Zanie’s, The Exit/In, Cadillac Ranch and The Mercy Lounge have all hosted this show. It has been broadcast on WSIX, WKDF, Lightning 100 and other Nashville stations and has been syndicated to more than 150 radio stations elsewhere. The radio show was billed as “Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival,” since broadcasters balked at the phrase “Barn Dance.”
Western Beat Records was launched in Nashville with a 1996 CD by Block’s band The Bum Steers. A year later, Jill Block released her debut album on Western Beat, billed as “Pork Chop Kelly.”
Billy Block began publishing his Western Beat newsletter at this same time. He also continued his journalism via columns in Music City News, The Gavin Report, Blink and other periodicals. In 1995, Gavin became the first magazine to publish an Americana music chart.
In 2000, Western Beat with Billy Block became Americana music’s first TV series. It aired on CMT and featured Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea, Hal Ketchum, Kim Richey, Ralph Stanley, BR5-49, Jason & The Scorchers, Trisha Yearwood, Joe Ely, Joy Lynn White, Michael McDonald, Lee Roy Parnell, Jon Randall and others.
Block also launched weekly live webcasts of “Western Beat.” The live event’s title was eventually simplified to “The Billy Block Show.” In recent years, he augmented his show’s weekly Tuesday night presentations by creating a blues-oriented Thursday-night series called “Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang” at Puckett’s Boat House in Franklin.
In addition to scheduling artists for his own weekly events, Block at one time also booked talent for such venues as The Basement and B.B. King’s Blues Club.
In 2008, he created “Silver Stars.” This is a talent competition for artists 60 years old and over. Staged annually at the Ryman, it is done in conjunction with the insurance firm Cigna-HealthSpring.
Billy Block was the announcer at Hillsboro High football games. He was a moderator of panels during the Americana Music Festival. He managed Hayseed Dixie and other artists, often producing and recording them for his Western Beat label. He graduated from the Leadership Music program in 2000.
Throughout all this, Block furthered his reputation as a standout musician. His percussion work has been heard on recordings by such artists as Steve Cropper, John Scott Sherrill, Little Milton, Tony Orlando, The Walt Wilkins Band, P.F. Sloan, Garnett Mimms, Essra Mohawk, The Woodys, Frank Black, Rick Vito and many others.
Billy and Jill Block’s pop-rock group The Big Happy released its debut CD in 2005. In 2014, the Mardi Gras party band Ya Ya released its debut album, with Block as its drummer.
His enduring “The Billy Block Show” is now in its 19th year, and “Silver Stars” recently celebrated its sixth anniversary.
Despite the staggering amount of work he did, Block was always upbeat. “If you see someone without a smile, give ‘em one of yours,” was his oft-quoted motto.
The impresario was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma in late 2013. He had beaten cancer twice before this.
Since the new diagnosis, multiple benefits have been staged for his medical expenses. Thanks to aggressive and innovative therapy, he rallied in mid-2014, and his many tumors shrank. But this was a temporary reprieve.
He went into hospice care on Tuesday, March 3. During his last morning at home, he told Jill that their room was full of angels and that he knew where he was going.
“The miracle is that Billy’s love and spirit can now permeate through the world,” says Jill Block. “We are all his legacy and his miracle, as long as we continue to share his love with each other….Be listening. The Beat goes on.”
He is survived by his wife Jill and by sons Rocky, 18, and Grady, 15, plus sons Michael Hughes, 19, and Shandon Mayes, 17, for whom Billy and Jill Block are legal guardians. Also surviving are brother Jay Block and sisters Francine Beckman and Nancy Block, all of Houston.
His drum kit will be donated to the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. There are plans for Block’s Americana archives to be donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Donations are encouraged to The Block Family Fund, Wells Fargo Private Bank, 3100 West End Ave., One American Center, Suite 530, Nashville, TN 3203, attention Bradley Gallimore.
Funeral arrangements will be announced soon.
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