Bluegrass Ramble – 20 years of picking

Musicians everywhere love to get together to play and if they are with long-term friends so much the better. 

Japanese guitar player and vocalist Kazuhiro Inaba isn’t any exception and the same goes for Sōhei Itō (mandolin and vocals), Hajime Tsutakawa (fiddle and vocals), Yuji Ishihira (bass and vocals) and Randall ‘Randy’ Cotten (banjo and vocals), the current line-up for Bluegrass Ramble, a band that in February (2019) marked 20 years of bluegrass music. 

To be fair, Cotten, from Illinois, didn’t join the band until 2000 and Itō even later, in 2015. 

Kazuhiro Inaba, one of the premier bluegrass musicians in Japan, was born in Osaka in 1960 and started playing 5-string banjo when he was 15 years old. His biggest influences have been his old-time banjo playing father, Etsuro – one of the earliest country music fans in Japan – and his brother. He started playing bluegrass music with his mandolin-playing older brother, Masatoshi, in the mid-1970s. The siblings formed the New Smiling Mountain Boys with whom Kazu played banjo until the late 1980s. 

A few years later Inaba switched to guitar when he found that it was easier for him to sing when playing that instrument than it was when playing the banjo. 

Cowboy Jack, from the original Carter Family, features some deft guitar work from Inaba …. 

His biggest influences were banjo aces Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, Don Stover, J.D. Crowe and Bobby Thompson, while vocally he has learned from Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Larry Sparks, Jennifer Warnes, and the Statler Brothers. 

The younger brother formed Bluegrass Ramble in 1999 and they started their monthly bluegrass concerts in Osaka. 

By that time multi-instrumentalist Kazuhiro Inaba had recorded two LPs and three CDs. But I digress.

The original members of Bluegrass Ramble were Kazuhiro Inaba, Tsutakawa and Ishihira, and Yuji Mukai (banjo and vocals), Kazuyoshi Onishi (mandolin and vocals). Mukai doesn’t play in a band currently, while Onishi is a member of the Backwoods Mountaineers band.

When he was a high school student Yuji Ishihira saw Japanese folk singer, Tomoya Takaishi, and that led to Ishihira going to the Lost City bluegrass music club in his home town, Kobe, to listen to music there. 

At the same time, he listened to his friend’s Flatt & Scruggs’ Mercury recordings and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. Right after that, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bill Monroe performed in Japan, and Ishihira became even more interested in bluegrass music.

His primary bass-playing influences are Tom Gray, Roy Huskey, Jr. and Bob Moore.

Hajime Tsutakawa is another who took an interest in bluegrass music while he was a high school student. It was there that he began playing guitar with a friend who played the banjo. By Tsutakawa’s own admission, if he hadn’t met his banjo-playing school friend then, he doesn’t think he would have gone on to play bluegrass. It was then that he began to take an interest in the music.

Soon after, another guitar player joined the group, so Tsutakawa switched to playing a mandolin, and the three of them formed their own band. 

Then, while in his 20s, he joined another band that already had a mandolin player, so Tsutakawa decided to learn to play the fiddle, the instrument that he always wanted to play anyway, it transpires. 

That Star Belongs to Me comes from the Lilly Brothers’ (with Don Stover) repertoire ….. 

The Bluegrass Ramble band gave its first performance in 1999 at Minoya Hall in Osaka, Japan, playing there for two years (1999-2000). Since then, for five years, their appearances were at the Tsuji Hisako Memorial Ensemble Hall (2001-2005). During the following three years Bluegrass Ramble played for six months at Theatrical Otenin (2006), one year at OCC Hall (2006-2007) and one year back at Minoya Hall (2007-2008), all in the Osaka area. 

Then, since 2009, the band has had gigs every other month (usually in the odd numbered months). “For the last 10 years, we have played at Mister Kelly’s, a jazz club in downtown Osaka, that provides great sound and serves a variety of meals and drinks,” Inaba relates.

In addition to their regular performances in Osaka, Bluegrass Ramble has performed at the world-famous Rocky Top bar, restaurant, and, most importantly, music venue in Tokyo, as well as other places throughout Japan. 

The band won first place at Shiga Bluegrass Festival Band Championship in 1999, clearly demonstrating early talent and excellent teamwork, and again in 2000. 

After four years at university Randy Cotten, who grew up in a small town in southern Illinois, was ready to see the world. He had managed to learn a bit of the Japanese language at school and made some Japanese friends, too. He says, “the biggest encouragement was an American friend, a former bandmate who had already come to Japan. He told me that bluegrass was alive and well here, with lots of good pickers, festivals and venues to play.”

Cotten was also told that he could easily find a job teaching English; in 1987 native English speakers were in great demand at what were known as conversation schools. 

To cut a long story short, Cotten found a job in Nagasaki, fell in love with Japan and managed to find some good Japanese bluegrass musicians who happened to be in need of a banjo player. Eventually, he began to feel that he wanted a more solid, long term position at a university in Japan, so he returned to the U.S. to get a degree in teaching English as a foreign language. Cotten returned to Japan in 1994 and has been there ever since. 

Having always been an active part of the bluegrass community in Japan, Cotten thinks that having had a couple of opportunities to pick with Inaba led to him being asked to join his band full time in 2000.   

In this video Inaba, switching to banjo, joins Cotten in playing a banjo medley …. 

Throughout the years, Bluegrass Ramble’s regular performances have been enhanced by quite a few guests from the U.S. such as Keith Little, Butch Robins, Sammy Shelor, Jennifer Strickland, and Mike Compton in addition to many talented Japanese musicians.

In 2009, quite fortuitously, the band was invited to play at the annual Country Gold international country music festival in Kumamoto, Japan. Excerpts of the show were later broadcast on NHK, Japanese national public television, markedly enhancing their profile.

Since 2011, with the invaluable help of the Minoh American Music Society and many others, Inaba has shown his support for Japanese bluegrass musicians at large, hosting an indoor bluegrass festival each year in Minoh City, near Osaka. Not only does the Bluegrass Ramble perform at the festival, but many other fine amateur pickers in Japan get a chance to demonstrate their respective abilities. This festival also gives an opportunity for some great university student bluegrass bands to perform on stage in front of an audience. 

Mandolin player Sōhei Itō was influenced, primarily, by his father, who also plays the mandolin and took him to various jam sessions and festivals. As a consequence, he became interested in playing the banjo and mandolin.

Itō would listen to his father’s record collection particularly those by Country Gazette, New Grass Revival, paying special attention to Sam Bush, and another mandolin giant David Grisman. 

Other influences were Alan Bibey and Tim O’Brien, to name a few.

As his tastes in bluegrass music developed, he enjoyed Hot Rize, Blue Highway and IIIrd Tyme Out.  

For this arrangement of Daybreak in Dixie Itō and Inaba (also playing mandolin) are joined by Kazuyoshi Onishi, Bluegrass Ramble’s original mandolin player …. 


Reflecting on the band’s longevity Inaba says …. 

“The Bluegrass Ramble has been so grateful and lucky to have been able to continuously give shows without any cancellations since the band was formed.”

On February 16, 2019, the band had a successful 20th anniversary show, marking their 181st gig together. “Hopefully, we will be able to continue to enjoy performing bluegrass music for many more years to come,” Inaba adds. 

In Despair was written by Juanita Pennington and Bill Monroe and was first recorded by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in May 1957. In this instance the song closes a set by Bluegrass Ramble …

Unfortunately, the Bluegrass Ramble hasn’t released a CD yet. Although Inaba is thinking about putting out a live album before too long. Judging by the video clips the band really has something different to offer. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.