Drummer, promoter and entrepreneur Billy Block, one of the best friends a musician could ever hope to have, passed away yesterday, March 11, at age 59. His loss, which will be acutely felt for some time to come, stands as proof that the power of positivity evidently cannot conquer disease; if it were possible to do so, Block is the man who was unquestionably equipped to succeed. He will be remembered for many laudable things, but none more than his irrepressible optimism. Because Block was a man of such unrelenting faith who had appeared to rally last fall, with reports of shrinking tumors and remission from stage IV metastatic melanoma, the news of his rapid decline in recent days came as a jarring surprise to many. We at Sports and Entertainment Nashville join with all those who mourn his loss, and yet, precisely because of the hope and possibilities for which Billy Block stood, and represented for so many, it only seems proper to adopt an attitude of celebration, the way one imagines he would have wanted it.
There are few who have lived in this city who have brought more joy, more support, more “you can do it” self-empowerment than Block, though his many friends and beneficiaries did their best to pass the overflowing cup back in his direction after word first got out about his cancer diagnosis in December of 2013. Benefits were held locally as well as in his former home of Los Angeles, prayers went up like swallows leaving Mission San Juan Capistrano en masse, food showed up at the family’s door, and Block’s realization that he’d made enough of a difference to have received such a response was something of a vindicating revelation for a man who’d devoted so much effort to help musical underdogs of every stripe.
As host and creator of the L.A.-birthed Western Beat Barn Dance showcase series, later to become known simply as The Billy Block Show in its eventual Nashville home, he flung open a door to musical hopefuls, offering an alternative to the daunting barriers typically guarded by industry gatekeepers. Nashville had always had the capacity to crush dreams as readily as it could make them come true, but Billy Block had the power to restore belief in one’s dreams of succeeding in music. No, not everyone he put on his stage and his radio show made it to the CMAs or the top of the charts (though a few did); no one could make such promises. Instead, Billy Block redefined musical success, paving a new and separate road on which artists could test their limits, find their identity, express themselves authentically and experience acceptance in an industry accustomed to saying “no” or, worse, saying nothing at all. As one of the first to recognize, unify and promote a patchwork quilt of nonconforming outsiders under the Americana-music banner, he is now lauded as a visionary of the Americana movement, which now offers a venue for the kinds of left-field musicians he often championed.
Block’s accomplishments have already been exhaustively listed in other media coverage of his life and its untimely end. His Facebook page, as well as many more belonging to musicians and others who knew him and his family, is presently flowing with honors, love, grief, gratitude and prayers for his wife and sons. Little more can be said that hasn’t been said, or isn’t presently in the process of being said multiple times, in multiple ways. Suffice it to say that the spirit of Billy Block will remain present and palpable, because so many were given a piece of it as they filed onto the weekly stage he provided. The rest is best said by those who knew him, those who watched him work and worked alongside him or received just the right encouragement at just the right time.
Multi-instrumentalist Randy Leago, a longtime Nashville fixture who’s played internationally with acts ranging from Duane Eddy and Martina McBride to Janis Ian and Rodney Crowell, remembers meeting Billy and Jill Block at the now-defunct Jack’s Guitar Bar and seeing them as people who “could become great, lifelong friends. A great first impression,” says Leago. It was a correct one, too. Leago, who figures he’s known the couple at least 20 years, went on to do every sort of gig in bands with Block on drums. By every sort of gig, that means the full gamut of thumbs-up and thumbs-not-so-up situations that a full-time working musician inevitably encounters along the way. Gigs where, as Leago puts it, “everybody’s just gritting their teeth and trying to get through to the end. I did a lot of different gigs with him, in a lot of different situations, and there was never any being bummed out about the gig,” says Leago. “He always made the gigs pleasant and fun, and was someone who would always make the best of them.”
Hearing tales of Block radiating light in the occasional trenches helps explain how he maintained such an upbeat presence in seemingly any situation, be it a challenging performance or, indeed, a dire diagnosis faced with dignity. Leago, who for a time played in the house band for the Western Beat/Billy Block shows and was sometimes in the bands of guest acts, says “his positive energy through the whole thing was just incredible. I never saw him flag once over all the years that he did that show. Sometimes with good audiences, sometimes with no audience, but he was always just on-point.” Being on some of those shows, Leago saw the effect Block had on young acts who were either inexperienced or who’d been beaten down by discouragement. “It didn’t matter if we were playing with some teenager from the Midwest, first time she’d ever been onstage, or, you know, John Oates and Jim Lauderdale up there. He brought the same kind of enthusiasm and the same kind of care.”
Leago, whose projects with Block also included an ebullient Louisiana-music quartet called Ya Ya (which recently completed its debut album), says that playing in the house band for Block’s annual Silver Stars seniors talent competition “was one of the highlights of my year, to see how much love and respect he put into that.” Silver Stars, which offered a platform for entertainers age 60 and older, was conceived by Block for sponsor Cigna-HealthSpring as a way to recognize the population perhaps most ignored by the entertainment industry. Block, who ironically wouldn’t live to see age 60, appeared to have an especially large heart for seasoned entertainers like the ones the competition attracted. Two-time finalist Sally Burgess recalls that Block helped build the confidence of each contestant with over-the-top encouragement. “He already had us on a pedestal at the outset,” says Burgess, “when, in this town, it is so easy to become discouraged.” Burgess, a former New Zealand Country Music Entertainer of the Year, says Block also had “a wonderful way of putting competitors at ease behind the curtains, and before every Silver Stars finals he would gather everyone together. We would all hold hands and he would pray for us. It was very, very touching,” she says, “and it made him very endearing to us all. I always felt I was important to him even though we had only known each other for two or three years. We were immediate friends; no pretense, just love and respect for another musician. Our loss,” Burgess says, “is indeed Heaven’s gain.”
We send out our condolences to the Block family—both the immediate members and those who, over the years, have become part of a surrogate family too big to number.
There are two ways to contribute to the Billy Block Family Fund:
Donate online via PayPal, and donate using the e-mail address email@example.com or donate via check made payable to the Billy Block Family Fund. Mail checks to Wells Fargo Private Bank, 3100 West End Ave., One American Center, Suite 550, Nashville, TN, 37203, Attention Bradley Gallimore.