Back in the early 1970s, a talented young Japanese band caused quite a sensation at festivals here in the US – and not simply for what was then the novelty of a foreign band playing bluegrass. Calling themselves Bluegrass 45, these five skinny kids from the southern port city of Kobe showed that not only could they play and sing Mr. Monroe’s music with skill and passion, but that they could entertain a crowd with the best of them.
Now, 45 years later, the original band members are planning a November reunion tour in Japan, hitting 8 cities in 10 days. On the tour will be Josh Otsuka on guitar, Akira Otsuka on mandolin, Toshio Watanabe on bass, Saburo ‘Sab Watanabe’ Inoue on banjo, Hsueh-Chieng ‘Ryo’ Liao on fiddle, and Chien-Hua Lee on guitar.
Akira tells us some of their US fans may not recognize all of those names.
When we came to the States in 1971, Mr Lee was studying in Taiwan and he couldn’t come with us.
When we returned to the States in 1972, Josh and I had to get three new members, Takao Koba (bass), Kouji Takada (fiddle) and Haruo Kurokawa (banjo). We’re hoping all these members will join us somewhere during the tour.”
He also provided this brief history of Bluegrass 45.
Kobe and Yokohama are the two biggest port towns in Japan. European and American cruise ships, US Navy battle ships and Asian freight liners would come in and it was common to see foreigners on the streets all the time.
In the mid ’60s, there was a small coffee house called Lost City in the middle of downtown Kobe. The first owner was a big old time music fan, and he named it after the New Lost City Ramblers. It was the place to hang out if you were a folk, country or bluegrass fan.
The second owner of Lost City was Kenji Nozaki, and he was a wonderful banjo player who could sing very well. He saved up enough money and he decided to visit the States with his fiddling friend, Shouji Tabuchi in 1967. But he didn’t want the music to die at the Lost City so he asked young college and high school kids who were hanging out there to keep the live music going. There were 15-20 kids playing there but eventually six diehard bluegrassers became the house band. They were brothers Josh and Akira Otsuka, Toshio and Sab Watanabe (also brothers) and two Chinese boys (Liao and Lee). Later on we named ourselves Bluegrass 45.
There were probably 100 bluegrass bands around at that time in Japan, but most of them were in college and they were well rehearsed for concerts and school events. On the other hand, the Bluegrass 45 were entertaining drunken sailors week after week at Lost City, and were trying to learn English from native speakers instead of Japanese English taught in a class.
In 1970 Dick Freeland, who owned Rebel Records at that time, came to visit the Expo in Osaka. He was invited to the Lost City, where he met and had a chance to listen to the 45. He liked what he saw and he invited the band to the states the following year. As I mentioned before, Mr Lee was in Taiwan at that time and he couldn’t join us, but the rest of the band was flying to the US in June of 1971.
The very first gig was Bean Blossom, which was called the first International Bluegrass Festival later on because of the 45 and the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band from New Zealand. That summer the 45 performed at the Country Gentlemen’s festival in Webster, MA, Carlton Haney’s festivals (Berryville, VA, Gettysburg, PA and Camp Springs, NC, where the film Bluegrass Country Soul was shot), a contest in Callaway, Md, Grand Ole Opry, numerous country shows (opening for Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc), Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, MD, Fiddler’s Green in Toronto, and recorded two LPs for Rebel Records before the band went home in September. The second album was produced by John Duffey, who would start the Seldom Scene just two months later.
In 1972 Toshio and Sab started BOM (Bluegrass and Old Time Music) Services to sell American LPs in Japan (copied the business model from David Freeman’s County Sales), started their own Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, and later on established their own recording company, Red Clay Records, which released many albums including Tony Rice’s first album and New Tradition (Jimmy Gaudreau, Keith Whitley, Jimmy Arnold and Bill Rawlings). Sab also started a monthly bluegrass publication, Moonshiner.
Josh and I toured the states again in 1972 with three new members, but disbanded after the tour. Josh got a day job while I moved to the US and joined Cliff Waldron’s the New Shades of Grass.
Since then we’d done a reunion gig or two every time I go back to Japan, and the band did tour to the states few times.”
Akira’s solo project, First Tear, was released earlier this year. He has been an active musician here in the US this past 40 years, logging recordings or stage appearances with Jimmy Arnold, Peter Rowan, Bill Kirchen, Bela Fleck, Al Petteway, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bill Emerson, Tony Rice, Nils Lofgren, Eddie Adcock, Jethro Burns, Seldom Scene. He also appeared in the film Head Of State with Chris Rock in 2003.
Josh is now retired and performs mostly for fun, primarily in a jug band, while Liao and Lee work together in Japan.
Here is their schedule for the reunion tour.
|11/16/12||7:30||Rokkoman Hall, Kobe, HyogoKobe||Jakajaka Bluegrass Special|
|11/17/12||7:00||Fujisawa Roudoukaikan Hall Fujisawa, Kanagawa||The Bluegrass 45 ’45th Anniversary’|
|11/18/12||4:00||Rocky Top Ginza, Tokyo||The Bluegrass 45 ’45th Anniversary’|
|11/19/12||TBA||Little Village Nagoya, Aichi||The Bluegrass 45 ’45th Anniversary’|
|11/22/12||7:30||Another Dream Osaka, Osaka||The Bluegrass 45 ’45th Anniversary’|
|11/23/12||2:00||Takarazuka Nishi Kouminkan Takarazuka, Hyogo||The Bluegrass 45 ’45th Anniversary’|
|11/24/12||TBA||Asakura Kouminkan Asakura, Ehime||The Bluegrass 45 ’45th Anniversary’|
|11/25/12||5:30||Bunka Plaza Galleria Kouchi, Kouchi||‘World Music Night’|
Though there are no solid plans, there is talk of another studio album. Let’s hope that happens soon.