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About the video

Japanese bluegrass band Bluegrass 45, performing at the River Of Music Party
in Owensboro, Kentucky June, 2006


About the artists

In the hazy past of the early '70s, before the invention of video players and
compact discs, it was very common to hear the following sort of propaganda
coming out of the mouths of jingoistic Americans worried about the ever-growing
Japanese economy. "Those Japanese! Why, they can imitate anything! They
have figured out how to make McDonald's hamburgers, without the recipe! They
have imitated all our technology. In fact, they even have guys who have figured
out how to play bluegrass, just like Americans! Can you imagine that, a
Japanese bluegrass band?" In the international music scene that has developed
since these times, with so much global interchange of ideas and styles, and so
many different unexpected fusions of musics taking place, perhaps the idea of a
Japanese bluegrass band is not so startling after all. But many heads turned
when the Bluegrass 45 group first came on the scene, and a common practice in
a store specializing in this kind of music would be to play one of the Japanese
group's discs as a blindfold test for unsuspecting customers, who of course
would never be able to guess the origin of the band. Rebel records honcho
Charles Freeland brought about the group's first American tour when he
"discovered" them during a holiday in 1970. The band had been formed in 1968
by the brothers Saburo and Toshio Watanabe. The brothers apparently goaded
each other into learning American bluegrass styles, Saburo coming up with a
pretty good copy of the Charlie Monroe guitar-picking style, then picking up
banjo after hearing a Flatt & Scruggs record in 1965. The earliest incarnation of
the group was as a high school band, but the name Bluegrass 45 did not come
about until a few years later, when another set of brothers came into the picture.
These were Josh and Akira Otsuka. The band's first album, Run Mountain, was
released in 1970. In the next year Bluegrass 45 was the first Japanese bluegrass
group to tour in the United States and Canada, and most likely the only group in
bluegrass history to wind up on the Grand Ole Opry as part of their inaugural
tour. Rebel wound up releasing two albums by the group, Bluegrass 45 and
Caravan. Group membership has fluctuated over the years, but the band
celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1996 with another American tour,
commemorating the birthdate of the group from the point of its first international
tour rather than the time of its actual formation. Both Saburo Watanabe and
Akira Otsuka have had active careers inside and outside the group not only as
musicians but also as organizers, writers, and distributors. In 1971 Saburo
started the first major Japanese distribution company for bluegrass, B.O.M.
Service. The following year he organized the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival,
which developed into Japan's largest and longest-running bluegrass event.
Saburo produced the first Tony Rice album for Red Clay records in 1973 and an
album for the group New Tradition in 1976. In 1983 he began the publication of
Moonshiner magazine. The Bluegrass Boys brought him in on bass as a
replacement for Tater Tate the next year. In the '90s he received a series of
honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association, including an Award of
Merit in 1995 and Print Media Personality of the Year in 1998. He became
secretary of the IBMA's Board of Directors in 1995. Akira Otsuka settled in the
United States and has been extremely active as a mandolinist, performing with
groups and bandleaders including Cathy Fink, the Blue Apples, the John Starling
Band, Grazz Matazz, Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, Lex Price Jr., and Outlet. He also
writes regularly about both bluegrass music and new recording technology,
these activities encompassing liner notes, columns in Bluegrass Unlimited, and a
book on midi recording basics. A more recent addition to the group has been
mandolinist Tara Inoue, who relocated to Johnson City, TN, in the late '90s,
working with Jeff White, Peter Rowan, Frank Wakefield, and Grammy winner
Allison Brown. The group's contribution to the bluegrass repertoire? Why, it's
"Fuji Mountain Breakdown," of course.  By Gene Chadborne