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Billy Block, CMT hope they have the beat, the Western Beat

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2000

What started off as an early week multi-act showcase for country acts where patrons "get a $6 show for $5" now will be free.

But that's quite alright with the man behind "The Western Beat With Billy Block" because Country Music Television, broadcast in 40 million households, will start airing a weekly series of concerts pairing name acts with edgy country singers starting Sunday, July 2 at 11 p.m. eastern time for 13 weeks. The show will be rebroadcast at 10 p.m. the next night.

Among the performers are Trisha Yearwood, who starts the series with Charlie Robison and Lonesome Bob, Jim Lauderdale, Lee Roy Parnell and Hal Ketchum.

"Western Beat is a new brand of country that broadens the parameters of what is widely considered country music," Block says. "We include everything from rock to rockabilly and blues to bluegrass creating a diverse format that appears to a broad demographic."

How does Block decide who plays? "I have to like it," he says. "We don't do mainstream commercial country unless the songs are really cool. We didn't want to do the typical cookie cutter kind of music. We wanted to create a forum for the innovators of this kind of music, not the imitators."

In other words, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain need not apply.

Chris Parr, CMT's director of programming, says the company was interested in the show because "there's kind of a movement that's been happening in Nashville, and Billy certainly has been a magnet for these types of people. We are interested in showcasing some of this incredible talent that is part of Western Beat whether you want to call it alternative country or Western Beat. Bottom line is it's some very talented artists making great music."

"Obviously we're in the business of growing our audience. Obviously, we think there's an opportunity in bringing something to the television audience."

The parings of name acts and relative unknowns was, of course, by design.

"I understood initially to bring the alternative stars, we had to bring some of the hipper mainstream acts so we didn't alienate the audience," Block says. "We went to the labels and made a pitch."

Each hour-long show contains three performers singing plus interviews and videos of each artist performing. The concerts were held in March at the Exit/In in Nashville, the home of "The Western Beat" series on Tuesday nights throughout the year.

The concept grew out of Block's West Coast experiences.

"I was the house drummer on the Ronnie Mack Barn Dance at the Palomino (in Los Angeles) for every many years," Block says. "When I came to Nashville (in 1995), I saw there was a huge void. Many of the people who were part of that scene came to Nashville."

"Lauderdale was here. Buddy and Julie Miller were here. Lorne Rall. Redd Volkaert. So I called them and said, 'let's do a western beat thing here.' They were all into it."

"The enthusiasm for it was very high from the beginning," Block says.

The very first show included Lauderdale, Kristi Rose, the late Walter Hyatt and Duane Jarvis in February 1996 at the 100-person capacity Sutler club in Nashville.

Block already was playing the Sutler on Tuesdays with Hyatt and figured he'd ask for a slow night of the week to have bands perform.

The show later moved to Zany's comedy club in July 1997. "We had outgrown the Sutler," Block says. "It was the old thing. Nobody goes there. You can't get in.'"

And the next and now current stop was the 400-capacity Exit/Inn club in July 1998.

A who's who of country acts have appeared over the years including Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

While the live attendance was limited, Block expanded to radio on WRLT when the Western Beat was at the Sutler.

The shows started to be recorded and was rebroadcast on WZPC (then called "Power Country") for a five-hour weekly segment.

WANT now broadcasts the Exit/In shows live. (Block also DJs on WSIX from 10 p.m.-midnight on Sundays playing similar music).

With ideas in hand, Block, his wife Jill and Tommy Oliphant produced a pilot for a Western Beat TV show.

"We figured we'd run it up the flag pole and see who salutes."

They met with a few CMT execs one morning. "Much to our delight, they liked it," says Block.

"We negotiated for quite awhile," Block says. "Once the deal was done, it didn't take long to get into production."

They went after the record labels to get major acts involved. "We basically got the labels involved, which was very involved," Block says.

"We went to Mercury and got Eric Heatherly and Kathy Mattea and Kim Richey," he says.

"We included a lot of the local musicians on this show. People like Joy Lynn White, Kevin Gordon, Walt Wilkins, Lonesome Bob. Jamie Hartford. A lot of the local scene. Here's a chance for virtually unknown local artists to get national exposure on CMT...That's what this is all about - bringing the margins to the mainstream."

Block clearly is enthusiastic about his new venture and the performers.

"Ralph Stanley was a wow moment," Block says. "Just the fact that there's this legendary guy on stage." He recorded with his band and Jim Lauderdale.

"Eric Heatherly is a star," Block says. "This kid has it. Here's a guy who was discovered at Tootsies. One of his first gigs was at the Western Beat at the Sutler. He's one of the guys we've championed from the beginning."

"He's one of the guys who's keeping the music alive," he says. "He can sing. He can write. He can play."

The future of the show doubtlessly depends upon how well the series is received.

Parr says, "We're not looking to make them overnight stars. It's a more stripped down version of great entertainment."

While ratings is one measure, Parr says, "if it's not (a ratings smash) and it still shows promise - obviously we like the idea - just getting positive viewer feedback and our viewers telling us they care about it (matters)."

Block says, "I think if they see any bump with the show, they'll be happy."

"People have been given enough vanilla, and they're ready for neapolitan, and that's what we're giving them," says Block.

The schedule
July 2
Charlie Robison
Lonesome Bob
Trisha Yearwood

July 9
Eric Heatherly
Joy Lynn White
Hal Ketchum

July 16
Lee Roy Parnell
Kim Richey
The Derailers

July 23
Allison Moorer
Walt Wilkins
Joe Ely

July 30
Phil Lee
Victor Mecyssne
Kathy Mattea

August 6
Jack Ingram
Tim Carroll
Robbie Fulks

August 13
Big House
Jamie Hartford
Buddy & Julie Miller

August 20
Ralph Stanley
Duane Jarvis
Jim Lauderdale

August 27
Rhonda Vincent
Kevin Gordon
Jason & The Scorchers

September 3
Bruce Robison
Eric Holt
Hank III

September 10
Trent Summar & New Row Mob
Kristi Rose

September 17

Bum Steers
Stevens Sisters
Foster & Lloyd

September 24
Clay Davidson
Jon Randall
Rodney Crowell