Bluegrass music has traveled far from its homeland in Appalachia and its founder, Kentuckian Bill Monroe. It has found footholds of enthusiastic fans around the globe, including in Japan.
“In 1961 when I was in first [year] of university, I heard the FEN – Far East Network – an American Army program on the radio,” says Michio Higashi, a Japanese bluegrass musician. “Me and my friend heard the country music hour ever day, and then we’d pick up one or two bluegrass tunes.”
Higashi says he’d record the songs and then listen to them over and over, learning how to play the tunes by ear.
Saburo Inoue of the Japanese bluegrass band, Bluegrass 45, started learning that style of music as a teenager.
“When I was 14, my brother pushed me to play guitar,” Inoue remembers. “I heard that [bluegrass] sound…I thought, this kind of music really touched the heart of the people. I didn’t know those words in English but I still felt the connection of mountain music and my banjo and bluegrass.”
American bluegrass acts found an appreciative audience when they toured in Japan.
“We went to Japan in 1975,” says musician J.D. Crowe. “We were over there 10 days and I think we played eight concerts. Every one of them was sold out. It was just encore after encore. They wouldn’t let us quit. We had to come back three or four times. That was a great feeling. I really didn’t want to come back to the U.S. after playing in Japan!”
While the roots of bluegrass music in Japan can be found in the 1960s and 70s, there are younger musicians, like Takumi Kodera, who are finding their niche in bluegrass.
“Early on, I was influenced by Earl Scruggs and started playing banjo bluegrass all the time,” says Kodera. “Later I encountered Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, and people like them influenced me. People like me, while still following the authentic bluegrass traditions, feel like we’d like to create something new.”
“I wish Bill Monroe could still be alive to see how what he started back in the 1940s has become this large, international music form,” says John Lawless, editor of Bluegrass Today. “And he did live long enough to see that start. And he saw Japanese musicians. He toured in Japan and in Europe, but I’m sure even though he might say he knew it all along, he couldn’t imagine that [it was] going to be everywhere.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2414, which originally aired on April 27, 2019. Watch the full episode.