NASHVILLE In a genre often laden with mainstream shellac, roots music is finding a new voice with "Western Beat With Billy Block," a Country Music Television program debuting in July.
Mainstream country, Americana, rockabilly, bluegrass and folk all-stars from Rodney Crowell, the Derailers, Radney Foster, and BR5-49 converged for the show's first 13 episode tapings, which wrapped on March 29 at legendary Nashville club Exit/In.
"The vibe has been great about this program developed to promote alt.country and roots music," creator Block said. "In these episodes, we've got everybody from Ralph Stanley and Joe Ely to Buddy and Julie Miller."
Robbie Fulks, Phil Lee, Bill Lloyd, Eric Heatherly, Tim Carroll, Kevin Gordon, Trent Summar and the New World Mob, and Kim Richey also participated in the taping.
Featured performer Lee is a former truck driver whose new release, The Mighty King of Love (RealAudio excerpt of title track), is raw honky-tonk. "I'm happy just to be here. We just sort of showed up as a band and horned our way in," he said.
Block began a "Western Beat Roots Revival" weekly event and radio program four years ago. His idea stemmed from his days as a house band drummer on "The Ronnie Mack Barn Dance," a TV show live from the famed Los Angeles Palomino Club. The "Western Beat" venue-hopped and eventually settled at the Exit/In, a surprisingly barebones club near Vanderbilt University and Music Row, with heyday performances by the likes of Ry Cooder, Muddy Waters, Billy Joel, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Despite the first-time segment sponsorship of major labels such as Curb, MCA, Mercury, Sony and Virgin, and the inclusion of some mainstream artists, including silver-voiced Trisha Yearwood and Texas blues-country hybrid Lee Roy Parnell, Block's aim to expose country's margins not homogenize them is unwavering.
"With this show we hope to impact country radio and widen its scope," Block said.
Lee agrees. "Some people get uptight about it, but we wouldn't be here with 'em," he said.
The spotlight is definitely on roots music, though. You know you're not listening to country radio when you hear deep-throated Tim Carroll sing "If I Could Make My Living Going Fishing."
Chris Parr, CMT director of programming, thinks "Western Beat With Billy Block" will blend well with CMT's contemporary blend of country music. "We feel there is a great potential for Americana music because there are so many ways that traditional, Americana and contemporary country music connect."
The potential for this burgeoning genre is reaching new heights with the formation of the Americana Music Association to explore demographics and broaden its audience. The AMA celebrated its coming-out party during the recent South by Southwest music-industry convention in Austin, Texas, with sponsor GrooveTone, an Internet Americana label.
GrooveTone artist Walt Wilkins was featured during a "Westen Beat" episode. "This is an incredible opportunity for a new artist like Walt," label creative director Nick Pellegrino said. "He's just starting to chart on Gavin's Americana chart, and this show will expose him to a whole spectrum of people who might not be Americana radio listeners."