US bluegrass youth heading to Japan

Wheeling Park High School Bluegrass Band of Wheeling, WVEvery summer, the town of Kawaguchi in Japan hosts an International Exchange program for young musicians. The young players stay with host Japanese families and are exposed to Japanese culture during their visit, which culminates in the annual Lilia festival in Kawaguchi.

Last year, the members of Donald Grass – a Kawaguchi-based bluegrass band who performs regularly in area schools – asked prominent Japanese bluegrass promoter Saburo “Sab Watanabe” Inoue to become involved in petitioning the Exchange Program to bring young US bluegrass players to Japan for the festival, July 27-28.

The members of Donald Grass came to IBMA’s World Of Bluegrass several times and saw a lot of young pickers enjoying bluegrass there. They thought it’s cool to have those kids for International Exchange program of Kawaguchi. Since Donald Grass is known through their volunteer activity by mayor and city hall officers, they recommended bluegrass kids to the city. Finally for this year, Lilia choose to invite young artists from U.S.A.

Donald Grass asked me to make it happen. So I contacted to Dan and Nancy at IBMA. They were both excited about the plan and introduced me to Bluegrass in the Schools program’s Tom Kopp, and things started last WOB.

We’d like to thank Bridgestone Americas Holdings, Inc and the town of Kawaguchi for the funding.

Nancy Cardwell at IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) tells us that Lilia has invited two young amateur bluegrass groups for 2008, and a band made up from of several exceptional teen professionals.

“IBMA provided a list of high school and college-age based bands we knew of to Sab and the officials in Japan, we helped make the initial contacts to see if they had the dates clear, and then Sab and the gentlemen in Japan selected the groups. During World of Bluegrass last fall, several reps from the city of Kawaguchi and Sab met with Bluegrass in the Schools chair Tom Kopp, Dan Hays and the folks at the Nashville Bridgestone office.”

The amateur bands chosen to participate are the Gallatin County Youth Bluegrass Band of Warsaw, KY (faculty sponsor Kim Samuel) and the Wheeling Park High School Bluegrass Band of Wheeling, WV (faculty sponsor Bob Turbanic).

Also making the trip is a teen supergroup composed of Sierra Hull on mandolin, her brother Cody Hull on guitar, Cory Walker on banjo, his brother Jarrod Walker on lead guitar, Christian Ward on fiddle and his brother Austin Ward on bass. Each has established themself as a true prodigy while still in school, and come from nearly every corner of the US.

Christian shared a few thoughts about the trip…

“Austin and I are really excited to be going to Japan especially with Sierra and the other players who are involved. We met Sierra several years ago at IBMA when were involved with a teen all star band. We’ve stayed in touch each year since. She also spent a week at our house mixing and mastering her CD Secrets at my dad’s recording studio here in Southern CA. We really admire her as a person, player and singer. She is awesome! So, when she asked us to be part of the tour we didn’t spend anytime thinking about it, we answered ‘yes’ immediately.

We really don’t know what to expect which makes it even more exciting! We know the trip will be a interesting cultural experience. Austin and I have toured Europe and the Middle East but this will be our first trip to the far East.”

After the Lilia festival, Sierra will remain in Japan to tour in support of her new CD, Secrets. Cory and Christian will stay on for her touring band, which will also include Shane Blackwell on guitar and Jacob Eller on bass. A list of her tour dates in Japan can be found on Sierra’s web site.

Cory and Sierra have promised to send us photos and some video of the trip, which we will share with everyone on Bluegrass Today when we get them.

Hats off to Donald Grass, Sab, IBMA and Bridgestone for pulling this together. It will surely be a memorable experience for the young American pickers, and an inspiration for bluegrass fans and players in Japan.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.