The music echoes from the mountainsides, cascades of fast-played notes riding on the wind and a blanket of good cheer settling over the landscape, warming listeners and players alike.
It’s not a bluegrass festival in the North Carolina mountains, or anywhere near the music’s Appalachian ancestral home. It’s the sound of the Japanese bluegrass scene, packed with its own festivals, monthly jams and big-name bands.
And Bluegrass 45 may be the biggest name of all of them.
Fifty years after they started playing music together in a Kobe coffeehouse called Lost City, the six members of Bluegrass 45 are bringing their brand of bluegrass to Wide Open Bluegrass.
It won’t be their first time in North Carolina. They reached that milestone during their first U.S. tour in September 1971, which started with a performance at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana. After meeting many of their heroes there, Bluegrass 45 continued winning fans and making friends in bluegrass on the road, eventually coming to music promoter Carlton Haney’s festival in Camp Springs. That gig is captured in a documentary called “Bluegrass Country Soul,” which shows the 45 bringing some levity to their traditional performance by playing their instruments behind their heads.
Akira Otsuka, Bluegrass 45’s mandolin player, remembers the festival well. He was still learning English then, and as he sat alone at a table selling the band’s albums, a man sat next to him.
“Obviously he liked what we played,” he recalled with a chuckle. “He talked to me for an hour – I didn’t understand a word he said!”
Otsuka, who has lived in the U.S. for many years, now speaks English with ease – and bluegrass was an early teacher.
He learned the bluegrass repertoire in the ’60s, long before the internet and home printers.
“Somebody would write down the lyrics of a song, then I would borrow their song book and copy them into my notebook,” Otsuka explained. “And that made my English skill much better.”
Borrowing was essential to learning the music, too. “The albums we could get hands on were very limited,” he said. “There were some bluegrass LPs released in Japan, but also we bought some imported bluegrass albums – Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Don Reno and Red Smiley, and Country Gentlemen.”
Records were expensive – particularly the imports – so albums got loaned out, taped and passed around, Otsuka said. And bluegrass fans would get together frequently for “LP listening concerts.”
Not long after that 1971 U.S. tour, the members of Bluegrass 45 – Otsuka and his brother, Tsuyoshi “Josh” Otsuka; another set of brothers, Toshio Watanabe and Saburo “Sab” Watanabe Inoue; Hsueh-Cheng “Ryo” Liao; and Chien-Hua Lee – went their separate ways, though all continued to make music.
Sab Watanabe founded Moonshiner, Japan’s longest-running bluegrass magazine. He and Toshio run B.O.M. (Bluegrass and Old-Time Music), a mail-order lifeline for bluegrass fans in Japan, as well as the famed Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, which has brought bluegrass to the mountains outside Kobe since 1972.
Except for Akira Otsuka, Bluegrass 45’s members still live in Japan. But they still regroup periodically to perform, and they’ve been using Skype to prepare for this 50th-anniversary performance at Wide Open Bluegrass. Most of their rehearsing, Otsuka admits, has been for songs they already have down.
“(Red Hat Amphitheater) seats 6,000 people, but only probably 10 of them have seen us before. So we don’t have to learn any new songs,” he said with a hearty laugh. “We are concentrating on what we do the best. Our average age is over 70 now, and we don’t have the techniques today’s bluegrass bands have. We just get up there and have a good time, and the audience has a good time, that’s our plan.”
What: Wide Open Bluegrass with Bluegrass 45, Chatham County Line, Steve Martin with Steep Canyon Rangers, Hot Rize, Balsam Range, Sierra Hull and others
When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; Bluegrass 45 will be onstage at 2 p.m.
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh