Americana. Alternative country. Alt-country. Roots rock. Country rock. Whatever one calls it, it means the same thing, more or less: American music, with clear influences from country, rock, folk, blues and more, combined to create a sound entirely independent of most mainstream, commercial country music.
Though difficult to describe — even artists have trouble articulating their thoughts about alt-country — the music usually has an identifiable sound. Artists typically tapped for the category include a list as diverse as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller, The Derailers, Junior Brown, Billy Joe Shaver, Joe Ely, Kim Richey, Lee Roy Parnell — even traditional bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and mainstream country artist Kathy Mattea. Depending on influences and artistic approach, the music can sound “too rock” or “too country” for country radio stations or “too country” for rock and adult alternative stations. In short, it might be one of the only American musical styles without a natural home.
CMT premieres Western Beat With Billy Block this weekend. The debut episode, which features Trisha Yearwood, Allison Moorer and Lonesome Bob, airs Sunday (July 2) at 11 p.m. ET, repeating Monday (July 3) at 10 p.m. ET and Tuesday (July 4) at 8 p.m. ET. Taped live in March at the Exit/In nightclub in Nashville, the hour-long show is hosted by Block, a longtime champion of alt-country, who also talks with the artists in backstage interviews. Yearwood, known both for mainstream country hits and album tracks that move outside commercial boundaries, was excited to be included.
“My favorite music is a little left of center, and my biggest musical influences are from the earthy, rootsy country mixed with roots rock ’n’ roll,” she says in CMT press materials. “If someone hears my music and puts me in a category with these other artists who are considered alternative, I would be honored.”
Although CMT premieres Western Beat With Billy Block this weekend, the live show itself began four years ago as Billy Block’s Western Beat Barndance. “The whole idea of [the show] is to create a sense of camaraderie and community spirit,” Block told the Nashville Banner in 1996. The effervescent drummer and entertainment entrepreneur still maintains the same philosophy. The show’s format has remained largely unaltered despite two changes of venue and burgeoning popularity within the Nashville music scene. In March 1999, renamed Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival, the show began airing on local radio stations. Today it airs Sunday nights on WSIX-FM (98), one of the nation’s leading mainstream country stations; Monday mornings on Vanderbilt University’s WRVU-FM (91.1) and Monday night on Lebanon, Tenn.’s WANT-FM (98.9).
Television was the obvious next step. “It’s always been my vision for our Western Beat concert series to take it to television,” Block maintains in a recent interview with country.com. “[Producer] Tommy Oliphant, my wife Jill and I put together a pilot that we felt would best represent what the show would be about. We figured that with CMT in our backyard we should run it up the flagpole and see what might happen. We didn’t have many expectations, but it was worth a try. Much to our surprise, CMT was delighted with it, and we immediately made plans to proceed.”
CMT already has shown itself to be receptive to roots-style music. Since 1994 the series Jammin’ Country, which airs seven nights a week at midnight ET, has featured music videos by acts as varied as Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams III, Emmylou Harris, Charlie Robison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rosie Flores, Roy Orbison and Nickel Creek. Western Beat, featuring roots artists exclusively, marks the first time CMT has offered a live-performance series.
“The beauty of country music is that there are multiple styles within the format including traditional, contemporary and alternative,” says CMT Programming Director Chris Parr in a news release. “Western Beat With Billy Block delivers a realistic slice of the Nashville music scene to CMT viewers across the nation.”
Block hopes that having the Western Beat show on CMT will allow artists who often fall through the cracks of mainstream music to be heard. “We’re creating a new brand of country that incorporates elements from rock to rockabilly to blues to bluegrass, and that’s the purpose of this show,” he says. “’Western Beat’ [as a musical style] is the umbrella that covers all of these kinds of roots music. Western Beat With Billy Block is the delivery system of this music to the world.”
CMT’s version of the show will go a step beyond Block’s radio broadcast, allowing viewers to connect visually with the artists and the energy that surrounds live performance. “I think people might be surprised at the depth of the performances,” Lee Roy Parnell told CMT the night of his taping. “A lot of times it is difficult to get on record the depth of a performance in general. But, when you see somebody live it tells you for sure whether they’ve got it or they don’t.”
There can be little doubt that the artists who appear on Western Beat With Billy Block have “got it.” Throughout the 13 original shows in the first season, critically heralded artists such as Joe Ely, a reunited Foster & Lloyd, Jim Lauderdale and BR5-49 will appear on stage alongside lesser-known acts like Walt Wilkins, Victor Mecyssne, Joy Lynn White and Phil Lee. Each is unique, but all are united in their goals to maintain their musical integrity and offer music that reflects American musical styles and lifestyles.
“I was thinking about the poets back in the ’50s, the beat generation,” mused Ely to CMT. “Jack Kerouac and those guys told the tales of where they’d been in America, and they were constantly moving from the East to the West. So the beat was almost like part of the road, the stories of the people they met crisscrossing across America. To me, the word ’beat’ not only means what a drum does, but also a kind of timing, like a highway stripe. It’s a pure American thing.”
Artist Bruce Robison agrees. “It is hard to put your finger on, which is why people keep throwing a lot of different names out for it. Whether you call it Americana or Western Beat or whatever, I think it’s basically country music that really has a soul to it.”
Regardless of what it’s called, Block believes the music will continue to expand and that, eventually, it will have a global impact. He has a website, www.westernbeat.com, which webcasts live his weekly Tuesday night show to an audience he estimates at nearly a million listeners. In addition, CMT Canada has picked up Western Beat With Billy Block for telecast, and an English radio station has expressed interest in airing the show.
“This is my first love, this is my passion, these [artists] are my friends,” Block states enthusiastically. “Each one brings something special to the party. The challenge for me is to try and recreate their magic on stage.”
Mark Horn of The Derailers nicely sums up Block’s marriage of music and vision. “All the roots rock and Americana people who might not get played on rock or country radio still make good records and have musical things to say,” Horn contends. “Billy has given us a voice and a place to be heard, and it’s wonderful.”