A Conversation with Billy Block
Puremusic: You've become much more than a musician along the way of promoting this genre that's come to be called Alternative Country. It's a long story, I'm sure. Where shall we pick it up?
Billy Block: It all started with the music, being a drummer. Growing up in TX, and having the opportunity to be around this emerging scene in its early days. When I was growing up in Houston, Steve Earle was there, and Lucinda was there. Nanci Griffith was playing at Anderson Fair, Townes, they were all around. It was a great time to be learning how to play and perform at clubs around those kind of folks.
Besides playing, I started getting into other things. I started writing as a music journalist. I was the editor of Buddy magazine, the Texas music magazine. It was a viable way to promote the scene that I was already becoming part of as a musician. So I had a great perspective on it.
PM: And what year is this?
BB: This is the mid-seventies. I graduated high school in Houston in '72, and was already playing in a night club six nights a week making three hundred a week. In my senior year I went to school from noon to four, went home and had dinner, worked in a music store from six to eight, and played a gig from nine to one. I'm still friends with the guy who hired me at Parker Music, he's now a bigwig at St. Louis Music [a big instrument and amplifier company], Stan Morgan. I hooked up with Huey Mo before I was 21, he hired me as a session drummer at Sugar Hill Studios. I played on two Freddy Fender records that year. I played around the club circuit with guys like Shake Russell and B.W. Stevenson, and then [bassist] Roger Tause and I got the Billy Joe Shaver gig. Roger and I were a great rhythm section, he always kept me from getting fired. I was always outspoken, a hellion.
PM: A hell raiser?
BB: Umm...fun loving. I'd been on my own since I was 15, so I was a little wild. But Roger was always the buffer between myself and bandleaders and club owners, kept me working for a ling time. So I played drums live and in the studio and wrote for Buddy magazine for a lot of years, and always had dreams of doing other things.
In '85, a friend said that I'd played with everybody I could in the TX scene, that it was time to go to L.A., NYC, or Nashville. My sister was living on the beach in Venice, CA, so I gave her a call. She said she had a floor for me, so I sold everything I had, including a '57 Ford Ranchero.
BB: Yeah, sold it, and bought a new Toyota pickup. Packed a suitcase full of clothes and a set of drums, and drove across country. I got to Venice and felt like a bumpkin that just fell off the watermelon truck. Venice Beach in '85 was rockin.
PM: Big time.
BB: As soon as I arrive, my sister says, come on, let's go to the boardwalk. I saw a guy who'd juggle an apple, a bowling ball, and a chain saw, and bite the apple as it went by. It was wild, muscle beach was full of huge guys and beautiful women working out. Freaks everywhere, people getting high in the streets, I'd never seen anything like it.
A lot of musicians would take out ads looking for players in The Green Sheet, and I answered one two weeks after I got to town, and started making four hundred a week playing in a Top 40 rock band. I was the 50th guy they auditioned.
PM: Had you been doing stuff like Top 40 rock before?
BB: Well, you know, you grow up in TX, you play everything. Horn bands, Blues, R&B, Country, Rock, sure. This gig was more Rock of the 80s, The Police, Ska, that kind of stuff. So they said they were leaving on Thursday for two weeks in Roseville, near Sacramento. Couple of those guys are still friends. When I got back I hooked up with Chuck Plotkin, an old family friend, who'd produced Dylan, Springsteen and others. He said he was looking for a drummer for an act called the Williams Brothers. I rehearsed with them during the summer, but nothing really came of it, and I moved on to something else. But the connection with Chuck had been established.
Right after that, I got the house band gig at The Palomino, for the Ronnie Mack Barn Dance. I did that gig from '87 until I left L.A. in '95. I played with a lot of the mainstays of the scene then, Jim Lauderdale and Rosie Flores, and Jim Highfill. That was when Dwight Yoakam was just getting started, and the Desert Rose Band, the whole Southern CA Country Rock scene. I'd grown up in TX around the first progressive country movement, with Willie and Waylon and all. When I was playing with Billy Joe Shaver in '78, we were touring with Emmy Lou and Willie. So I'd seen that first wave, as it were, and now in '85, I was there at the release of Dwight's "Guitars and Cadillacs" at the Palomino. So, Rosie and Lauderdale were tearin it up out there, Buddy and Julie Miller were out there, I'd first met Julie in Houston. Jeffrey Steele from Boy Howdy was out there, [bassist] Lorin Raul, those two and Red Volkaert were all in the house band.
PM: Really? [all three have been mainstays in the Nashville Alt-Country scene for years. Red's out on the road with Merle Haggard.]
BB: Right, so all these are relationships that have been building for fifteen or twenty years. A lot of those people from the Alt-Country or Southern CA Country Rock scene of that era have ended up in Nashville. Anyhow, so I did that for ten years. I was the house drummer for the Barn Dance at the Palomino, and played on a late night talk show called the Late Mr. Pete Show. I went to work for Disney as a bandleader and a singer and a dancer. I started doing commercials, did a number of national TV commercials for Miller beer and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
PM: Played drums on them, you mean?
BB: No, I was an actor.
PM: An actor, too? I gotta see some clips, man. That's funny.
BB: Okay, I think I've got some of that stuff around. When I went to work for Disney, I had long hair, so I cut that off. One of the people there said, "You'd be great in one of our commercials." So they hired me to do a national Disney commercial, and sent me to a place called Tepper Gelagos, a commercial acting workshop. At the end of the workshop, you audition for the agencies. I got offers from three different agencies. I signed with one, and two weeks later I had my first job as a chef in a Carrow's restaurant commercial. A month later I auditioned for a KFC commercial. They used to do this thing from Lake Edna. I played a country singer in a national spot. Worked two and a half hours and ended up making forty grand. It was amazing. Then I did a Miller Beer commercial, same thing. The guys that do those commercials, they make a fortune. continue