Today’s Nashville is more musically expansive than ever before, thanks to many talented individuals both known and unknown who’ve aided in diversifying country music’s capital city. Among them, though, only a relative handful have the ability to both see and activate possibilities others miss, ultimately furthering Music City’s ongoing evolution. It’s in the latter, smaller category that you’ll find Billy Block.
Since moving here from L.A. in 1995 with his wife, Jill, Block has been busy making his adopted hometown a more hospitable place for musicians and artists. Scores of them have been given access to a Nashville stage via the live, weekly showcase the musician-about-town produces and hosts, presently known as The Billy Block Show. A savvy businessman and uber-earnest promoter as well as a skilled musician, songwriter and producer, Block is something of an anomaly in a business where those qualities typically exist in separate, sometimes even opposing, camps. Though his boosterism and Barnum-esque bent have proven a bit much for some of his industry peers, others are quick to cite him as an energetic cultivator of quality talent.
ASCAP executive, author and longtime hit songwriter Ralph Murphy says that Block has “used his own personal charisma to push [his efforts] forward, but it’s never really been about him. It’s always about, ‘Look who I’m presenting.’ And you will pay attention to who he’s presenting,” says Murphy, “because you know he will present something really good.” Regarding Block’s trademark effervescence, Murphy sees it as a “can-do attitude that is quite irresistible. That’s really the key to Billy: Yes, we can do it! It’s almost like the Andy Hardy movies, where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland would build a stage . . . and next thing you know, there’s a full-scale musical going on. The one thing that soaks into the ground,” reckons Murphy, “is that attitude. He prepares the ground for everyone to grow, and he creates an environment that can make it happen.”
Block’s own musical soil is multi-layered. Beginning his professional drumming career in Texas during the emergence of the eclectic “cosmic cowboy” movement in the mid-’70s, he later moved on to L.A., finding a similarly fringe-inclined scene unfolding there in the 1980s. By the early ’90s, Block had created his “Western Beat” brand—an umbrella for rough-hewn and retro-rooted country-rock—and established a weekly show in Los Angeles. With many of his L.A. compadres moving to Music City for its superior living conditions, Block and his wife finally followed suit. He quickly recognized that Nashville lacked an anchoring location for its ragtag faction of roots-music practitioners and decided to “create a showcase where you can rock out.” The alternative-country/Americana genre, a scruffy folk/country/rock hybrid then miles removed from Music Row, was a long shot when the couple placed their bets on it, debuting Billy Block’s Western Beat Barndance in February of 1996. “We said, ‘We’re going to champion the misfits; we’re going to bring the margins to the mainstream,’” he recalls. “And that’s what we did.”
In addition to maintaining a vitally important platform for aspiring acts on his weekly show, Block gave a regional voice to the still-fledgling Americana genre on the 50,000-watt WYCQ in the late 1990s, reaching across Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Media coverage of the burgeoning alternative-country movement in such outlets as The Wall Street Journal recognized him as a leading force, though country radio—then ruled by the likes of Garth and Shania—remained skittish, and Block’s show would inevitably be bumped when new managers or consultants were brought on board. His popular live show shuttled to increasingly larger venues, and he maintained a hopscotch radio presence, but the Blocks’ mission was an uphill climb.
“It was a crazy time just trying to keep going,” says Jill Block, “but we just believed so much in the artists and the music. And,” she adds, as her husband joins her in spontaneous near-unison, “We loved the people that made it.” Continues Jill, “You have to understand, almost everybody said that he was crazy, [saying], ‘There’s no way that people are ever really gonna pay attention to a bunch of guys with mandolins and fiddles.’”
The verdict is in: Billy Block is of sound mind. Today, Americana is a flourishing format with a strong industry presence in the Nashville area. Still, Block admits that, even fairly recently, “I said to Jill, ‘Do you think anybody cares about what we’ve done for the last 20 years?’” Ultimately, the answer to that question appeared inside a cloud of disturbing news that came in late 2013: he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma. He’s beaten cancer twice before, though he says this occurrence “is a lot more dire.” Medication is temporarily reducing his tumors, though perhaps Block’s most potent tool is his optimism, buoyed by prayer and meditation. Even so, the silver lining in this situation caught him by surprise.
“The response to my illness from this community has been overwhelming,” Block says, his voice growing choked. “I mean, people came out of the woodwork, [saying things like] ‘Billy gave me my first gig.’ Not only that, but financially, spiritually, emotionally, the support that I’ve been given by this community, that’s the most gratifying thing,” he says. “Knowing that what you’ve done has made a difference is pretty gratifying.”
Block continues hosting his Tuesday night Mercy Lounge show as often as his health allows, and he has his hands in other pots, such as his blues-focused Thursday night series at Puckett’s Boat House in Franklin. His emphasis, though, is resting and spending time with his family. He and wife Jill have two biological sons, Rocky and Grady (aged 17 and 14, respectively). Both are gifted musicians with professional aspirations who attend Hillsboro High School, while sons Micheal Hughes and Shandon Mayes are Hillsboro High football players-to-watch, originally friends of Rocky’s to whom the Block family opened their home in recent years, when personal circumstances threatened to limit the two youths’ chances of realizing big dreams.
The possibility of raising a family while remaining in the music business—something that was virtually “unheard of” in L.A., says Jill, who worked there as a singer—was a major factor behind their move to Nashville. She admits it’s been “a hard balance,” but one they maintained by constructing a lifestyle that allowed Billy to get off the road and work locally. “We’ve always tried to maintain that [balance],” he says, “and I’m most proud of that. ’Cause I’m really connected to my family. We don’t know how much time I have,” he allows. “We’ve made a decision as a family that we’re just gonna spend time together. The time that I have is going to be precious time that we spend together.”
Block’s reordered priorities still include a commitment to developing musical talent. These days, he and Jill both serve as coaches and mentors to the younger segment of the music community, including many students at Belmont and MTSU who need to refine performance skills and presentation in order to maximize their talents. This, says ASCAP’s Ralph Murphy, can make the difference between a dream and an actual career. “A lot of people that come through my world [of songwriting] basically aren’t good performers. [Billy] will groom, and work, and even play drums with them,” says Murphy, “just to make sure they have it all together on a performance level. It’s essential for them.”
No matter the talent level, Block believes in being an artist advocate and, when asked, a giver of constructive feedback. “Everybody has a dream. God forbid that I should step on a dream, or tell them that they can’t achieve it,” he says. “Because there are people in this town that are enormously successful but are woefully under-gifted. If opportunity meets luck,” he says, “anything can happen.”
Uniquely, Block also pursues artist advocacy at the other end of the spectrum as producer and host of Silver Stars, a competition he conceptualized for entertainers age 60 and older. This is year number six for the project, done in conjunction with health-service company Cigna-HealthSpring. “We’re creating opportunities for people who thought their careers were over. We’re giving them a second chance,” says Block. Both the show and its creator get an enthusiastic thumbs-up from now-Nashvillian Sally Burgess, former New Zealand Country Music Entertainer of the Year and 2012 Silver Stars finalist.
“The chances of getting musical work around Nashville is always difficult but particularly so over 60 years of age,” says Burgess. “Silver Stars provides exposure, appreciation and the possibility of further work. Cigna-HealthSpring and Billy Block have, between them,” she says, “opened a window of hope in giving people over 60, who are often performing better than they ever have, to reach for that ‘brass ring’ again.” The Silver Stars finals are held at the Ryman Auditorium, in itself a performance opportunity of a lifetime for even seasoned seniors and a symbol of respect and achievement that, as Block has learned, means more to finalists than the chance of winning the $5,000 first prize. (This year’s finals are scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 19; for more information, go to hssilverstars.com.)
Burgess, who performs around Nashville and elsewhere in the state to help promote Silver Stars at Block’s invitation, considers it a compliment to be part of his team. She plans to compete again this year, in part to “stay in touch and be part of Billy’s dream—his musical family.” There are many who belong to Billy Block’s extended clan, representing his contributions to multiple generations of local talent and standing as a testament to his generosity of spirit and the reverberations of his “can-do” attitude. In Music City, you don’t have to look far to find a chip off the old Block.
Donations to the Billy Block Family Fund can be made via PayPal (Billyblockfamilyfund@gmail.com) or to the attention of Bradley Gallimore, Wells Fargo Private Bank, 3100 West End Ave., One American Center, Suite 550, Nashville, TN 37203