Country musician Kevin Blake Willard was good at making people happy.
“Where Kevin was, there was a party,” recalls his mother, Judy Willard. “He was such a delightful person, and he was always that way, his whole life.”
He could light up any room.
On Tuesday he was involved in a serious vehicle accident near Hanford. Mr. Willard died later that day at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. He was 47.
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His band, Kevin Blake Willard and the Cadillac Cowboys, performed for more than 20 years throughout the central San Joaquin Valley and became a well-known fixture at cowboy bars, rodeos, festivals and casinos. Band member Ben Slaughter recalls the lead singer as gregarious and likeable, with a remarkable stage presence.
“All the local country acts wanted to be like Kevin. … He was just a larger-than-life character,” Slaughter says. “He always had bad jokes to tell, and always made people feel welcome. It didn’t matter if it was three people in a run-down bar or several hundred people at a big festival.”
It was the passion for the music that kept him going for that long. There was no real fame or fortune there.
Mr. Willard primarily performed on the weekends, when he wasn’t working as a sales representative for dairy farms. His mother says he was likely on his way to work when he was involved in the car accident. Family had few details about the crash, which is being investigated.
Mr. Willard’s three children – Blake, Brooke, and Bailey Jo – remember their father as happy, hard-working, playful and wise.
“I loved him so much,” says daughter Brooke, “and I can’t wait to be in heaven with him one day playing music.”
He made people feel good about themselves.
Daughter Bailey Jo says her dad always made someone laugh or smile within minutes of walking into a room.
As a student at Hanford High, he was a rodeo cowboy who made it to the national championships. As a teen he taught himself how to play guitar.
Since his death, his mother has received hundreds of messages about him – mostly from people he helped.
KISS Country radio morning DJ Jody Jo was among many who took to Facebook to share memories and condolences.
“We are all better people for knowing you,” she wrote. “Now, go play some poker and sing a few with my dad! Willards, you are in my prayers tonight.”
I loved him so much and I can’t wait to be in heaven with him one day playing music.
Slaughter says the band was close to finishing a new album, which will still likely be completed and released. But he added it is unlikely the Cadillac Cowboys will remain together.
“That band started and stopped with Kevin,” Slaughter said. “Kevin was that band.”
Slaughter hopes their music made a difference in people’s lives.
“I don’t know that music changes the world,” he says, “but maybe for certain folks, for a couple hours on the weekend, they could replug and reset and be better prepared to face their lives when they were done.”
Kevin Blake Willard
Born: Dec. 2, 1969
Died: Sept. 12, 2017
Occupation: Musician, and sales representative for dairies.
Survivors: Wife Irene Willard; daughters Bailey Jo and Brooke Willard; son Blake Willard; parents James and Judy Willard; sisters Deanna Oliveira and Heather Willard; and numerous extended family members.
Memorial service: Pending. People’s Funeral Chapel in Hanford is making arrangements.