Billy Block, the honky-tonk underdog’s best friend, meets cancer head on with sticks in each fist 

The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On
click to enlarge Billy Block

Photo: Eric England

Billy Block

The front porch of Billy and Jill Block's home is inviting, with several painted wooden rocking chairs offering a pleasant view of the greenery that envelops their Forest Hills neighborhood. A large cooler sits next to these chairs, on which someone has written "Thank you" next to a large smiley face.

This cooler wasn't left outside to drain after a camping trip or a tailgate party. It's on the front porch so friends can drop off meals. These friends want to ensure that the Block family — which includes their two sons, 17-year-old Rocky and 14-year-old Grady, and their extended family, 17-year-olds Micheal Hughes and Shandon Mayes — has dinner each evening.

"I haven't had to cook since January, and I don't like to cook in the first place," Jill Block admits, smiling. "Feeding all these boys! All I have to do is get them breakfast and lunches for school."

Billy, who sits beside Jill on a white leather couch in their living room, a light-filled space that overlooks the large backyard, nods in agreement.

"We're just so grateful for everything, and to have the chance just to focus on getting well, to not have to worry about anything else," he says.

Little else has consumed his thoughts since Dec. 31, when the alternative-country impresario stunned the city's music scene with a Facebook announcement that he has an advanced form of cancer. The 58-year-old — who has been at any given time a professional drummer, radio host, TV show host, emcee, tour manager and a tireless promoter of emerging and fringe artists — has lost a considerable amount of weight. He's noticeably fatigued, in sharp contrast to the infinite well of optimistic energy he's always radiated.

Yet there's still an inextinguishable fire in his blue eyes. It ignites readily when he tells stories of launching his Western Beat series in Nashville 18 years ago, or how Charles Thompson — better known as Frank Black, aka Pixies frontman Black Francis — once told Billy he'd have to grow out his hair if Thompson was going to hire him, because he looked like an accountant.

Anyone who knows the relentlessly cheerful Block would not be surprised to hear that his spirit is unbroken, despite the bleak diagnosis that cancer inhabits his lymph nodes, spleen and liver. Block has been involved in an immunotherapy clinical trial at Saint Thomas Hospital since January. If the results aren't favorable, he plans to seek more aggressive treatment.

Block has beaten melanoma twice before. When he was 22 he nearly had to have his leg amputated, and a scar runs across his back from a second bout in 1993. He's determined now to beat cancer a third time, with the same amount of vigor and passion that he's applied to every other aspect of his life and career. That those he's helped along the way are lining up now to return the favor only strengthens his resolve.

"I want to do this for a lot longer," Block says solemnly.

Billy Block was born in Miami and raised in Texas. By his early 20s, he was playing drums with the likes of Billy Joe Shaver and Freddy Fender. In 1985, he moved to Los Angeles and secured a gig as the house drummer at The Palomino for the legendary West Coast live country showcase Ronnie Mack's Barn Dance. He rapidly carved out a place in the L.A. alternative-country scene, playing drums with a band called the Bum Steers and launching his first Western Beat radio show in 1991. He met Jill, an aspiring singer, that same year, and they married in 1993.

By the early '90s, the Blocks noticed a shift in their community. They watched as many of their friends — Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores, Lucinda Williams, Buddy and Julie Miller — moved to Nashville. It started to seem like a good fit for Block, then the Los Angeles correspondent for Music Row magazine. After the Bum Steers traveled to Nashville for the Jim Beam Country Talent Search in late 1994, the Blocks decided to make the move to Music City. Block accepted an offer from Music Row founder David Ross as the publication's head of sales and marketing, and he and Jill settled in Sylvan Park.

Garth Brooks and Shania Twain might have been dominating the commercial country airwaves at the time, but an alternative country scene was growing in Nashville and beyond. The rise of artists skirting the edges of contemporary commercial country music — then struggling to find a label, in every sense — was chronicled by former Billboard Nashville bureau chief Chet Flippo in December 1996.

"There's a new musical tent under which are gathering all the performers the big top doesn't have room for these days," Flippo wrote. "The big top shelters mainstream country music; the side tent is harboring those performers going by the name 'alternative country,' 'insurgent country,' or 'progressive country,' and it's starting to draw a crowd. For years, it has been a critically important but commercially overlooked side of country music. Now, significantly, its appeal to a disenfranchised country audience and a curious pop and rock audience is beginning to make it a vital musical force and is drawing the attention of major labels."

Billy and Jill Block felt something else was being overlooked in their new hometown. While the local scene offered plenty of songwriters' nights, there wasn't a comparable showcase series for bands, especially emerging or visiting ones.

"When we moved here, we realized there wasn't a fun band night, a place you could go to discover new bands," Jill says.

In February 1996, the Blocks launched Billy Block's Western Beat Barndance at The Sutler, featuring Jim Lauderdale, Duane Jarvis, Walter Hyatt and Kristi Rose. Just before the launch, Block told the Scene he hoped the show would raise the profile of showcasing acts while promoting camaraderie among them.

By the end of the year, Flippo credited Block's series with an integral role in the alternative-country genre's development, noting that Hank Williams' 73rd birthday party — held during a Western Beat show — was a significant event that illustrated "the movement's character and its appeal and music diversity."

Billy Block's Western Beat was soon broadcast live on WRLT-FM, Lightning 100. As its visibility rose, the show (later known as the Roots Revival and the title it goes by today, The Billy Block Show) moved down the street to Zanies. By the late '90s, it had a weekly berth at Exit/In, whose all-accepting stage seemed a perfect fit. The Blocks fondly recall the Exit/In run as the show's golden age. During those "eight glorious years," as Block says, you might have Steve Earle stop by to play a two-hour acoustic set, or Lucinda Williams perform her new album live for the first time — not just any album, mind you, but her landmark Car Wheels On a Gravel Road.

All this was happening at the century's turn, as alternative country (or No Depression music, or any of its other terms) was becoming increasingly known as "Americana" — a term that began to solidify with the formation of the Americana Music Association in 1999.

"The Americana Music Association was getting together, but I was already doing this stuff," Block says, with a wry smile. "I was originally involved, but I was too radical for them."

At its height, the Western Beat brand extended to a magazine, a record label, a stage at the yearly CMA Music Festival, a CMT television series, and a radio show that has been broadcast on multiple stations, including WKDF, WSIX and WRVU. For a time, Block says, that show was the only syndicated Americana program to air on 100-plus stations nationwide. Among those who cite its influence and reach is singer, songwriter and producer Rodney Crowell, precisely the kind of restless, hard-to-pigeonhole talent who's come to define the genre.

"Billy Block's Western Beat was the first live radio show coming out of Nashville that put a frame around what eventually came to be known as Americana music," Crowell tells the Scene via email. "We 'Americana' artists would do well to remember this."

As its reputation grew as a home for artists who didn't fit the narrow playlists of commercial country radio, the Western Beat enterprise caught the ear of industry professionals on Music Row.

"I remember I went to see somebody at Western Beat, and I introduced myself to [Block] after the show," recalls veteran music executive John Grady, who became Western Beat's first sponsor when he was at Mercury. "I liked the vibe of what they were doing, and he's still doing it today — giving artists a place to play. Some things never change in this industry, and one is that young, up-and-coming artists need a place to play."

Grady, who currently runs the Nashville outpost of Crush Management, became close friends with Billy and Jill Block — their younger son is named after him — and has always been impressed with Block's energy.

"The thing with Billy is, the words 'no' or 'failure' really don't seem to exist," Grady says. "He's an incredible inspiration to me in that he keeps going. Music needs that. Musicians need an indefatigable force. It doesn't matter if they're famous or brand-new on the scene; what they need is someone to believe in them."

Grady says Western Beat gave talent scouts the opportunity to see new acts live, and whether they fit into a nicely defined package was irrelevant.

"The parameters of whether an artist is a country artist, or an Americana artist, or a rock artist, or whatever has never defined his show," Grady explains. "The artists have to be of a certain quality, but genres didn't play a big role here. We live in a world — in this industry, anyway — where there are very strict guidelines on genre-specific music, but that was never the case with Billy."

While genres may not have been important to Block, Western Beat gave him the opportunity to play what he loved.

"What was great was that the guys on Music Row were going, 'Billy, this is the kind of music I listen to on the way home, but I can't put this on my label,' " Block says. "I never turned my nose up at anybody, never said, 'Our music is better than your music.' It was like, 'Hey, pay attention, because this is the real stuff.' And they did. Guys started getting signed."

Today, the Americana genre has both a Grammy category and a Merriam-Webster dictionary entry. But there is still some confusion over what Americana music is. For Billy Block, the definition is simple.

"For me, it's the best music," he says. "It's artists of integrity, it's a combination of truly American music — it's folk, country, blues, rock 'n' roll, and roots music. That is the music that's always resonated with me, a blend of these truly American styles. Combine that with the uniqueness of the artists, the true voices, like Lucinda, Buddy or Jim. Those are, for me, the icons of the genre."

Block admits he's always been attracted to the bands of outsiders who make up Americana's amorphous ranks: the misfits, the troublemakers, the creative geniuses who resist categorization. But his show has also provided an early stage for some of mainstream country's hottest current acts, such as Keith Urban, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean. Back in 2011, Block remembers, when the series was airing from The Rutledge, a representative from Big Machine Label Group attended the show as a promising new duo was taking the stage. A year later, that act — Florida Georgia Line — released their debut album on Republic Nashville/Big Machine, yielding the No. 1 crossover hit "Cruise."

"Billy Block is such a staple in the Nashville music community, and it was really cool of him to support us when we were fresh out of college trying to figure it all out," the "Florida" of the duo, Brian Kelley, tells the Scene via email. "[Bandmate] Tyler [Hubbard] and I owe him a lot for having our backs in those early days. ... It was really cool being on his weekly show and getting introduced to new people around town."

"Man, Billy really is a believer in new artists and we were honored that he took an interest in what we were doing," Hubbard adds. "He was a really cool guy to learn from."

The occasional big success aside, Block's role, as he puts it, is to be "the Ellis Island of Nashville" — a forum giving both local and visiting musicians the chance to be heard. Block introduces each artist who plays his show with almost P.T. Barnum-esque fanfare, but his enthusiasm is sincere. He's the very antithesis of the finicky music snob you'll find lurking in the dark shadows of venues and all corners of the music industry. He possesses a rare quality — an earnestness and genuine excitement about what's coming next — for someone who's been doing this for almost four decades. Sure, he can be a shameless promoter and hustler — but in an industry that's not for the thin-skinned, it's a relief for anyone who's had a door slammed in his or her face to find Billy Block in their corner.

"Billy has helped so many people — literally thousands of people have done his show," Grady says. "He is irreplaceable in this industry, and in this town. He has given so many people a chance. When people dream about coming here, and they get off the bus, per se, and walk out into Nashville, that's really what they're looking for — a chance. And if they didn't think that chance was available, it would be a different business.

"This business of music will give you numerous reasons on a daily basis to pack it in and go home. There's hardship around every corner, and forces telling you, 'No, that's impossible,' or, 'No, you can't do that.' It's energy like Billy's that keeps people playing.

"Also, with musicians and songwriters, if they didn't have a place to play or practice their craft, they would all end up in an asylum. So he's doing a great public service. The asylums and prisons would be more crowded if Billy didn't give all these people a place to get their ya-yas out."

"This is where our rehearsal studio has been, and we've turned it into a healing center for Billy," Jill Block explains as she walks through the basement level of their house. She opens the door to a large closet filled with boxes.

"This is the archives; this is 40 years' worth of Texas, L.A. and Nashville," Jill says. "All the records he's played on, thousands of pictures, DAT tapes, cassettes, tapes from radio shows, the CMT television show, Western Beat magazines. The most important thing we have is so many incredible photos, especially from the Exit/In days, when we were really building the Americana scene."

Jill flips through a treasure trove of photos representing various venues throughout the years. Most recently, it's the Mercy Lounge, where the show still runs every Tuesday for a $5 cover.

"We've been kicked out of every place in town, trust me," she deadpans as she closes the door to the closet. Making her way to the staircase, she passes a box of papers on the floor, wedged near a drum kit.

"Oh, there's my taxes," she notes, as she heads back upstairs with a coffee mug filled with fresh-pressed carrot juice for Billy. "Never a dull moment," she says, handing the mug to her husband.

"I drink 13 juices and supplements and have five coffee enemas each day," Block explains. "That's the glamorous part," he adds, laughing, which trails into a cough.

Block is undergoing Gerson therapy, a regimen that provides the body nourishment through organic juices and detoxification through coffee enemas, with the goal of reducing toxicity and nutritional deficiency. Block is following the Gerson method in addition to his immunotherapy treatment at Saint Thomas.

"Other than fatigue, I'm in great shape," he says. "I feel good. I'm rarely in any pain, usually [have] a pretty good attitude, but I'm tired. I'm often tired."

The Block family recently attended a benefit concert in L.A. that raised several thousand dollars for Billy's growing health care bills. (Due to his previous bouts with melanoma and subsequent surgeries, he is not eligible for disability insurance.) Several benefit shows have already taken place in Nashville, and on May 4, Billy will be the guest of honor at a celebration at The Listening Room Cafe organized by John Grady and YEP Nashville, a networking group for young entertainment professionals. The benefit, "Play One for Billy," was originally supposed to take place during CMA Fest in June.

"We found out that his health situation was more dire than we originally thought, so we moved the date of the benefit up," YEP board member Marc Rucker tells the Scene. "Our goal is to get as many donations before the show, and the show will be a celebration of these donations. We hope to raise $50,000."

Block grows emotional when he talks about how the Nashville community has mobilized to help with everything from medical bills to ensuring his family has dinner on the table every night.

"In my time of need, more people have come forward for me than I'd ever imagined," he says, struggling as his eyes fill with tears. "I don't cry a lot. ... I don't cry for myself. I feel like I'm going to recover and I'm going to be fine, but the compassion and the giving and the generosity that's been shown, it's pretty amazing."

Block already has his next venture planned. This summer, he hopes to launch NextGen Nashville, which he says will showcase the next generation of rising stars, including peers of his teenage sons, who clearly inherited their parents' work ethic and passion for music. Billy and Jill beam when they talk about Rocky and Grady, both skilled musicians who grew up working in the Block family endeavors. Rocky has been filling in to host The Billy Block Show, and he fronts multiple bands, including The Other Brother, a trio with Grady and guitar prodigy Johnny Reno Prentice, and a nine-piece outfit with The Mavericks' horn section and Carrie Underwood's steel guitar player.

"Rocky quit playing sports so he could focus on his music and take lessons," Jill says. "He's learned how to play guitar, bass, piano — music makes complete sense to him. He has a voice to pull it all together, the stage presence, and it's all done with his light. Nothing is pushed for him. His music, it's just who he is. Grady picked up drumsticks literally before he could sit up, and that's when Rocky knew he needed to pick up another instrument."

"At 14, he's a better drummer than I am now," Block says. "He can do things that I can't even imagine. [Rocky and Grady] have a great time playing music together, and I'm so proud that they've found a way to work together and have fun together. They'll have a great bond throughout their life that they're going to enjoy. It will be really fun for us to see them, to continue to see them enjoy the music together."

Billy and Jill are also extremely proud of Micheal Hughes and Shandon Mayes — friends of Rocky's since they played football together at J.T. Moore Middle School — who both work at Carrabba's in Green Hills and help out with production duties. Hughes has been living with the Blocks since eighth grade, after his family decided he would have a better opportunity there to play football in college and, ultimately, the NFL. He is still close to his family, who live in Edgehill Apartments. Mayes is originally from Chattanooga; when his family decided to return to his hometown, he wanted to stay in Nashville to finish high school at Hillsboro, and the Blocks welcomed him into their home.

"They're great kids, and they're a great addition to our family," Block says, noting that both Hughes and Mayes have great relationships with their families.

"Everybody has jobs in our house, everybody plays hard," Jill says. "Rocky works at Which Wich, and Grady is just chomping at the bit to grow old enough to get a driver's license and a job. We're really proud of Rocky and Grady. I think, the most important thing that I see, as their mom, and going through this really terrible time, is that they're like their dad."

She pauses, her voice wavering from its usual steadiness.

"He's given them this beautiful lust for life," she says. "They love their friends, they take care of people around them, they take care of each other, and they don't miss a thing. ... I'm just so proud of the impact Billy's had in their lives — that's the most precious thing. I get worried sometimes that I'm going to miss him, but then I look around and I know that he's everywhere, through these beautiful boys. It's the truth, sorry. It's why I have some sleepless nights."

Block squeezes Jill's hand, smiles and says, "Reality sandwich." Back when the boys were 5 and 8, he remembers, the Block clan formed something called The Block Family Band. Jill's face lights up with laughter as she recalls how tough Block was on the boys — so much so the family demanded that if he was going to be such a harsh taskmaster, he had to switch to an instrument he didn't know how to play. So he picked up the bass.

"He would look at us with this blank look on his face," Jill remembers. "He had no idea where the notes were, what the strings were, he was just trying to memorize where his fingers went. And then he'd be obsessed with Grady not hitting the snare right, or Rocky doing something on the piano, or me screwing everything up."

"You were fine, I was terrible, I'm the first to admit," Block jumps in as Jill dissolves into laughter.

"We decided as cute as it was, The Block Family Band needed to end," Jill says.

"And they were ready to go solo," Block deadpans.

On April 18, Block posted a note on his Facebook Timeline revealing that a CT scan showed tumor growth. The scan led his doctor to recommend that he stop the clinical trial and immediately start BRAF treatment, a more aggressive therapy that targets a specific gene protein. It was not the news the Blocks wanted, to be sure. Yet in his trademark optimistic style, Block wrote: "Round Two of Billy Beats Cancer! No Fear. All Faith."

It's exactly the kind of message those who know Billy Block would expect from him. He continues to draw from the same well of optimism that's sustained him on behalf of countless unknown bands and singers over the years — people who needed their own hopes stoked by a stranger with unshakable faith. He has a lot more that he wants to do, and he's determined to do it.

"Billy's always been 'all in' on anything he decides to do," John Grady says. "There's no doubt about whether he's serious about it or not. I wish more people had the guts to be blown away. Because when you're blown away by something, it kind of disarms you. You're left open to the world to say, 'Wow, you really like that that much?' Billy has the nerve to be blown away by people, by music, by causes. He's always on 10."

So he's going to keep fighting, and hoping, and maintaining goals that go beyond the warfare taking place in his body. That includes the ultimate destination of all those memories stashed in boxes in the Blocks' closet — the life's work of a man who's never given up on an underdog, and now finds himself in the position of being one.

"His dream is to have a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame, so this is why we're saving all of this," Jill Block says, looking over the accumulation of her husband's life in music. "I hope he makes it there someday. I think he deserves it."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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