Sunset Drive in Japan

Sunset Drive in JapanMaro Kawabata is a Japanese native who came to the states some 20 years ago. His interest in bluegrass music led him to record a solo project for Copper Creek Records, Carolina Blue, in 2001, and then plan a tour in Japan to promote the CD. He took Sammy Shelor, one of his heroes, with him on that tour. In 2007 Maro and Sammy went back and took Jennifer Strickland with them.

That second tour had as its focus the demonstration of opportunities for cross cultural exchange through bluegrass music. Since 2007, the tour has become an annual event. We had the opportunity to speak with Maro yesterday, and gather some additional information about the tour, the musicians involved, and the bluegrass in Japan.

Here’s a listing of each of the five tours, and which musicians have participated.

2001: Maro Kawabata, Sammy Shelor
2007: Maro Kawabata, Sammy Shelor, Jennifer Strickland
2008: Maro Kawabata, Sammy Shelor, Andy Ball and Shin Akimoto
2009: Maro Kawabata, Sammy Shelor, Andy Ball, Rachel Johnson and Shin Akimoto
2010: Maro Kawabata, Don Rigsby, Terry Baucom, Patty Mitchell and Rachel Johnson

When Maro began planning for this year’s tour, he was in the studio working on his latest CD, Sunset Drive. Don Rigsby was in the studio with him and expressed an interest in going on the tour. As the two began to talk, the lineup of the tour began to take shape.

For the Sunset Drive 2010 Japan Tour, Mr. Rigsby contributed a great help to choose musicians to travel with and I carefully chose musicians that would fit the tour purpose and quality.

Sunset Drive enjoying some Japanese foodMaro told us that his particular interest in taking Terry Baucom stemmed from the fact that he considers Terry to be somewhat of a legend who the Japanese audience hadn’t had many opportunities to see. Patty Mitchell sang on the CD and it seemed like a natural choice to take her along as well. Of course, Rachel Johnson had gone last year, and Maro decided he wanted her along again this time around.

I asked Maro how he would gauge the popularity of bluegrass music in Japan.

With the influence of Folk music in the late 70s, Bluegrass music was introduced to Japanese college students and began to gain popularity in the late 70s and 80s. There are some die-hard Bluegrass lovers in Japan and they are the ones supporting our tour every year.

He said the popularity, expressed as a percentage of the population who enjoys the music, would be roughly equal with that of the U.S. My next question was to ask him how the tour was received this year, with both Don and Terry along.

We did a lot of straight bluegrass music on this tour and our performance was very well received among the Japanese audiences at each venue. Needless to say, having high profile veteran musicians such as Don and Terry on the tour is huge plus.  Don and Terry are both strongly established in the Japanese Bluegrass scene.  I am so glad that we were able to provided quality music to those who had such high expectations from our past  tours.

As the conversation continued, I asked Maro how he would gauge the overall success of the tour, especially in terms of accomplishing its mission.

The 2010 Sunset Drive tour was very successful, we have accomplished our mission to provide the grass roots cross cultural experience and we visited hospitals to play our music to their patients.  We also did some work shops for the college students who are learning Bluegrass music among their college club activities.  I hope our time spent with those younger generations would motivate them not only to play music but to incite an understanding for international good. This year, we have raised almost $1,000.00 in donations for Nashville Flood Victims.  We are very appreciative and humbled by the generosity of people in Japan.  The funds raised on tour will be donated to the city of Nashville and the Red Cross on June 11,2010 by Hon.Hiroshi Sato, Consulate General of Japan in Nashville.

Maro tells us that he intends to continue this Japanese tour on an annual basis. His passion is to provide a grass-roots level cultural exchange between his native country Japan and his (now) home country of the United States. He also expressed a desire to tour here in the US as well, so we’ll be on the look out for that!

Terry Baucom in JapanIt was mentioned earlier in this article that Maro recently recorded a new CD titled Sunset Drive. The tour was named after the CD. Sunset Drive will soon be available from FGM Records. We’ve obtained a copy and will post a review soon, so keep your eyes open for that.

While they were in Japan, the band had the opportunity to interact with other Japanese bluegrass musicians. During one such instance, the Japanese bluegrass band Longing For The Southland, asked Terry Baucom to join them onstage for a turn through the song Yellow River. Here’s the video of the performance.