The Japanese have always been fascinated by western culture, whether it’s American films, clothing or, of course, music. Masuo Sasabe, singer and guitarist for the Japanese bluegrass band, The Blueside of Lonesome, can attest to that. A frequent visitor to Byron Berline’s Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival, he first became enamored with traditional American music at the age of 15 when he began sharing his love for bluegrass with his high school friends.
“Not many Japanese knew how to play bluegrass instruments when I began to play,” Sasabe recalls.
An architect by profession, he’s performed professionally with not one, but three, bluegrass bands — first, The Japanese Bluegrass Band — so dubbed by Berline himself — and later, The Appleseed, as well as with the aforementioned The Blueside of Lonesome. Both bands have played Berline’s OIBF repeatedly over the course of the past decade and a half, getting the opportunity to mingle with their American peers in the process.
“Byron Berline joins us every time The Blueside of Lonesome performs at that festival,” Sasabe proudly notes.
Sabade explains that while he’s kept his connection with The Appleseed — which was eventually rechristened The New Appleseed — The Blueside of Lonesome is now his primary project.
Not surprisingly, Sasabe’s early infatuation with traditional music motivated him to start learning vintage songs from albums by artists he hoped to emulate. “I could only copy the sound of the LPs,” he recalls. “We tried to play music by the Carter Family, the Blue Sky Boys, and The Louvin Brothers.”
Not surprisingly, he gained greater insights firsthand when he had opportunities to attend performances by visiting bluegrass bands from the States.
“I went to every concert I could,” Sasabe says. “Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Country Gazette, and many more. I also had friends in Japanese bands like Bluegrass 45 and It’s Crying Time who visited the US in the early ‘70s, and they recorded many live performances that took place at the festivals they went to, and then took them back to Japan. We knew what true bluegrass was from listening to the tapes.”
Sasabe’s own initial visit to the US took place with his band The Appleseed in 1974. Their stateside contacts were limited at first, but in time, they managed to secure several festival appearances. They eventually found themselves sharing stages at various musical gatherings that took place in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.
“We drove a rental car across the States for three months, and I made many bluegrass friends while traveling,” he remembers. “After several years, my friends, the McLain Family Band (who had their own bluegrass festival in Berea, Kentucky from 1978 until 1988), invited me to play. It was a great festival. So many popular bands played there. I got to take part in jam sessions as well. I visited there every summer, and these days, my American bluegrass friends sometimes visit me at my house when they come to Japan. It makes me happy, because it gives me an opportunity to sing and pick and play with them.”
Over the years, The Blueside of Lonesome has distinguished itself as one of Japan’s leading exponents of bluegrass music. The band’s lineup includes Sasabe on guitar and vocals, Yasuhisa Kato on mandolin and vocals, banjo player and singer Ryukichi Hayakawa, banjo player Takumi Kodera, upright bass player Akihide Teshima, fiddler and vocalist Hiromu Teshima, Hiroshi Ozaki on steel guitar, and singer Yoshie Sakamoto.
Sasabe points out that various band members have achieved special distinctions of their own along the way. Kodera took home second place at The Winfield Banjo Championship in 2018. He says that Sakamoto has gained recognition as Japan’s most popular country singer, and that she has two albums of her own recorded in Nashville.
Sasabe claims an extensive recorded catalog as well. He released four albums with The Japanese Bluegrass Band, three efforts with the Blueside of Lonesome and has made contributions to other outside efforts as well, among them, Yokohama Pickin’ Party (with multi-instrumentalist Sandy Rothman), Till We Meet Again by the Ozaki Brothers, and an album, by singer Yoshie Sakamoto, titled Someday.
The greatest accolades he’s been accorded have come courtesy of the USA. In October 2018, Blueside of Lonesome were declared Honorary Citizens of Nashville. Several year before, Sasabe was made an honorary citizen of Huntsville, Alabama.
Those honors seem appropriate. Based on his love of American music, Sasabe is clearly a citizen in good standing.