Fifty years ago this week the Japanese bluegrass band Bluegrass 45 arrived in the United States to begin a tour that was arranged by Dick Freeland of Rebel Records. In the past two articles in this series we introduced the band and explained how they came to meet Dick Freeland during his trip to Japan in 1970. This week we start a week-by-week description of the band’s tour, taken from Akira Otsuka’s personal diary.
The notes from Akira’s diary will present the tour from his perspective and we will also present some of his photographs. Additionally, we will add some quotes and comments from some of the bluegrass musicians and fans who met the band along the way to provide some information about how the band was received in the United States. We will also post articles from issues of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine from the summer of 1971 that relate to the festivals where the band performed. For instance, this week’s website archive article was taken from the August 1971 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited and discusses that year’s Bean Blossom festival.
Bluegrass 45’s first United States performance occurred at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana. Carl Jackson was seventeen years old and playing banjo for Jim & Jesse that weekend. When asked what he remembered about the band, Carl said, “I remember how nice they were and how well they played. I loved hearing them. I remember sitting and watching them play and thinking, “This is cool.” I loved it and had nothing but respect for them because they were so respectful of the music and had worked hard to emulate what we did.”
Jimmy Gaudreau was the mandolin player for the Country Gentlemen at Bean Blossom that year and he remembered, “Musically they were phenomenal. It was evident that they had put a lot of hard work into studying the bluegrass of yesteryear. It was about as good as it gets. They were mimicking American lyrics, and maybe not even understanding what they were saying—but the harmonies were good. They focused on getting it right as far as American standards on the festival circuit were concerned because they were being judged. All of the professionals at the festival welcomed them with open arms.”
After Bluegrass 45 returned to Japan, some of the band members were involved with bringing various American bluegrass bands to Japan. Jimmy said, “It was a win-win because we became friends with them when they played here, and they brought us to Japan later to play over there.”
When asked if he remembered talking with any members of the band, Jimmy said, “Only Akira because he was the mandolin player and he sought me out because he was a big Country Gentleman fan.” In Akira’s diary entry from Bean Blossom, he mentions that Jimmy gave him a hand-made, round pick. Regarding that encounter, Jimmy remembered, “I was experimenting with a round pick because I was having trouble with the pick turning in my hand, especially during hot summer days. When I’d sweat, the pick rotated in my hand and I’d end up on the flat side. Bobby Osbourne, one of my heroes, recommended that I try using a round pick to solve that problem. He also said that a round pick was good for tremolo. I still use a round pick on slow tunes to play tremolo.”
When you read Akiria’s diary entries below you will discover that the bus that Dick Freeland was going to use for the tour broke down on the way to Bean Blossom. Dick called his friend Cliff Waldron to see if he could help out by picking up the band at the Indianapolis airport. Cliff remembers, “Dick Freeland’s bus wasn’t running so he asked me to pick up the band at the airport in my motor home. That is when we were introduced to them. We all became good friends.”
When asked to give his impressions of Bluegrass 45’s music, Cliff said, “The were good musicians. It surprised me because they didn’t have what we had growing up. Their English was not great, but they knew the music…and their English got better as they went. They could play anything that they heard. We ended up doing several shows with them.”
When Akira decided to come to live in the United States, Cliff Waldron hired him to play the mandolin in his band (in about 1973). Cliff said, “Akira was a great showman. We used to kid around a lot and we had a lot of fun together. We traveled many miles.”
If you would like to hear both sets that Bluegrass 45 performed at Bean Blossom in 1971, along with a slide show of Akria’s photographs from the event, you can use this YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Hn0-WAkdEI
Bluegrass 45 — 50 Years Ago This Week
Week #01 6/17 – 6/22
By Akira Otsuka
1971-06-17 Thursday -Leaving Japan
I was too busy preparing and packing and I couldn’t go to bed till 2 am, then I had to get up at 4 am, so I’m very SLEEPY! Got on a JR train from Ashiya at 5:05 am and found Mr. Nozaki on the same train. He owned Lost City where BG45 was born and he negotiated our trip with Dick Freeland of Rebel Records. By the time we arrived at New Osaka station, all the other members were there. It was nice that so many people came to see us off so early in the morning. Five members of BG45 plus Mr. Nozaki left Shin Osaka station at 6 and headed to Tokyo and to Haneda Airport. We said goodbye to Mr. Nozaki at the Haneda airport and we safely got on board a Japan Airline jumbo jet.
We arrived at Honolulu at 11:45 am local time. They gave us a Visa till 9/30/71 without any problem. Dick Freeland had sent us a guarantee letter, but we even didn’t need it. We were in Honolulu for only one hour and 45 minutes and left at 1:30 am. They showed “Elvis On Stage” on a big screen. One of the songs Elvis sung was “That’s All Right (Mama),” which was his first single released from Sun Records and of course its B-side was Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Just a few days ago I was listening to a Stanley Brothers live show from 50’s and it included their mandolin player, Jim Williams singing “That’s Alright”. Ralph Stanley was touring Japan less than a month ago so what a coincidence…
After they served a breakfast (our second breakfast), we arrived at San Francisco at 8:40 am. We walked from one end of the airport to the other end and eventually managed to find a bus to downtown. It cost $1.10 to downtown. Mr. Bungarz, who is an All Nippon Airway pilot, used to come to Lost City with his wife. He came and took us to their home near Oakland.
Dick Freeland called and we decided to catch a flight to Chicago/Indianapolis at midnight! Mrs. Bungarz is not happy we’re leaving so soon. I took a nap in their backyard. Yesterday (well, actually it’s still today) we were in Japan that is in the middle of rainy season with high humidity. Here in California, it feels great with dry air with a little breeze.
After dinner, we did some picking: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,”“Proud Mary,”“Place in the Sun,”“Come Home My Dear One” (Josh’s original), etc. We headed out to SF airport around 10 pm and took off on an American Airlines flight to Chicago at 12:01am. Now everything is in English!! It was a 4 hour flight to Chicago, but 2 hour time difference. We arrived at 6 am—it’s finally the NEXT day!
When we arrived at Indianapolis, Sab’s bag was missing. Around 9 am Dick Freeland came to pick us up along with Ed Ferris. Ed looked at us, he crossed his arms and shouted something we didn’t catch. After few minutes, we realized he’s saying “Ultraman!” That’s a Japanese superhero TV program. Now Ed has become our friend.
Dick drove down in an old bus, but it broke down in Breezewood, PA so he hitched a ride with Cliff Waldron. We were introduced to all the members of Cliff’s New Shades of Grass: Cliff Waldron (guitar), Bill Poffenberger (fiddle), Ed Ferris (bass), Mike Auldridge (dobro), Dave Auldridge (mandolin—Mike’s older brother) & Ben Eldridge (banjo).
After about an hour drive, we arrived at Bean Blossom and Mr. Bill Monroe was standing by the gate welcoming everybody, so Dick took Josh out and introduced him to Mr. Monroe. People are jamming everywhere. Many cars and people. It’s amazing this many people like bluegrass. A contest is going on a stage in the woods. Bluegrass Unlimited had a table set up and they are carrying an official festival program. Bluegrass 45 is scheduled to perform twice tomorrow (6/19)!! Also BU’s “Bluegrass in Clubs” lists BG45 appearing at Lost City in Kobe & Manhattan club in Osaka. I am very pleased.
As we were getting ready to rehearse, a gentleman next door offered us a space. Gradually people started gathering around us and eventually a big crowd. Later on, this kind gentleman from next door treated Josh and I to dinner and we ended up jamming with him for two hours. Then Mr. Monroe himself showed up and joined us on 2 songs!!
In the early evening, they were having a huge jam in front of a barn. According to the program, it’s called “The largest jam session in the world.” After the big jam ended, Eddie Adcock came over and started setting up a tent for us. I had been a big fan of Eddie for many years, but I didn’t recognize him because of his beard.
At 11 pm, we went to see the main stage. Bluegrass Alliance (Lonnie Pierce, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Courtney Johnson & Ebo Walker) just finishing their encore number. We found chairs fairly close to the stage and observed/studied/enjoyed. Next act was James Monroe & Midnight Ramblers….“Bonnie,” “I Haven’t Seen Mary in Years”….
Next up was Cliff Waldron & the New Shades of Grass….“Proud Mary,” Dobro instrumental, “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine,”“Sunny Side of My Life,” etc. Auldridge brothers singing harmony. The last act of the evening was Bill Monroe and I believe he started at 12:30 am! His mandolin is so loud and Kenny Baker’s fiddling is just wonderful. After the show was over I practiced about an hour by our tent, then I finally went to bed at 2 am. Dick was hoping that a shop in Breezewood would fix the bus soon but it sounds like it’d take more time.
1971-6-19 Saturday – Bean Blossom
It’s our big debut day today. We’re playing on the main stage!! We started practicing around 10 am under Dick’s direction. We always did use “Raise a Ruckus” as a first song and that will stay the same. Then he suggested we do 5 songs/tunes that would feature each member ,so Liao will play “Listen to the Mockingbird”, Sab “Cherry Blossom Special,” Josh will sing “Place in the Sun,” Akira (Sleepy Eye John) “Red Rocking Chair,” and Toshio “Little Annie”. While I was singing “Red Rocking Chair,” Charlie Waller came by and listened to us.
Mic rotation: Dick told us to set a mic on the left high for vocals, a right one low for instruments and we would rotate. We were not used to this rotation routine and it was very tough to learn in a short time.
Then it’s time to get to the stage. I don’t know why, but Dick made us rush and it made us more nervous…. When we got to the backstage, Don Reno, Red Smiley & Bill Harrell were on stage but we were too busy to catch them. The next act was Cliff Waldron and then us.
I don’t know why, but our set went very well. The audience was screaming and they loved us. Since we couldn’t bring our own bass from Japan, Toshio borrowed Ed Ferris’. Well, somewhere during this set he broke a 3rd string. What a surprise. (Note: many years later Ed Ferris told me Toshio came running down the steps, handed him the bass with a broken string, snatched Bill Yates bass and ran back up on stage.) Here is the set list for our first set:
- Raise a Ruckus
- Listen to the Mockingbird
- Little Annie
- Cherry Blossom Special
- Red Rocking Chair
- Place in the Sun
- Bluegrass Breakdown
- Katy Cline
- How Far to Bean Blossom
- Encore: Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Believe or not you can hear this performance. http://frobbi.org/audio/landreth/BeanBlossom1971/BB71Reel82BG45.html
We left Japan on 6/17 and we never dreamed that two days later we would be on the main stage at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom festival, probably the biggest and most wonderful festival this year! The schedule was Don Reno, Red Smiley & Bill Harrell, then Cliff Waldron, Bluegrass 45, and Doc & Merle Watson, so I missed Don Reno & Doc Watson. Dick Freeland was pleased with our performance. We watched the Country Gentlemen (Charlie Waller, Bill Emerson, Jimmy Gaudreau and Bill Yates) doing “Yesterday,”“Teach Your Children,”“Matterhorn,” etc. Ralph Stanley with two young kids (Ricky Skaggs & Keith Whitley) & Lester Flatt (Jake Tullock was out sick so Johnny Johnson played bass & guitar and Roland White on mandolin & bass.) After that I went back to our tent & took a short nap.
I woke up from my nap and found everyone else still asleep. I looked at my watch and it’s 8 pm. Ooohnooo, we are on at 8!! Dick was talking to somebody but he was not paying attention. Oh no, oh no. We hurried to the stage and luckily we made it! Here is our set list for the second set:
- Raise a Ruckus
- Turkey in the Straw
- Little Annie
- Blue Ridge Cabin Home
- Place in the Sun
- Daybreak in Dixie
- You’d Better Get Right
- How Far to Bean Blossom
- Orange Blossom Special
(Thank you Ken Landreth & Fred Robbins for making this audio available.)
I might be biased, but I thought we were getting very nice applause and we felt really good.
- Jimmy Gaudreau of Gents gave me a round pick he made, and we talked a while.
- Eddie Adcock played with James Monroe two shows.
- Jim & Jesse’s 17-year-old banjo player, Carl Jackson, is awesome. Of course, Jesse’s cross-picking mandolin is amazing.
- John Hartford, Norman Blake, Tut Taylor & Vassar Clements are all great, but their music was very different.
Late at night:
At 2 am Josh & I walked around the park and we jammed with RFD Boys. They let me play a Gibson F5, but it didn’t quite fit my taste. In the early morning Kenny Baker came in and started jamming with RFD Boys….nice twin fiddle stuff and then Paul Warren joined. Since we saw Mike Seeger recording the main stage, I didn’t feel like taping that much. We met Mike in 1969 & 1970 when he visited Japan. The fog came out and I shot many photos of buses and scenery.
1971-6-20 Sunday – Bean Blossom
I woke up at 11 am and Sunday Morning Service had ended already. We went to a restaurant next door for breakfast and Bill Emerson joined us. We also talked to Carl Jackson in the back stage area and he confirmed he’s 17 years old. Mac Wiseman had Eddie Adcock play banjo on stage. It was exciting to see Lester & Mac singing “Someday We’ll Meet Again” together just like their 1948 recording on Mercury.
Ralph Rinzler MC’d the “Bluegrass History” and he arranged an amazing array of people to play and sing with Monroe. With Don Reno “Dear Old Dixie,” with Bill Harrell “Sugar Coated Love,” with Doc Watson “?,” Jack Cook “Live and Let Live,” with Jimmy Martin “Memories of Mother and Dad,” with Ralph Stanley & Jack Cook “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home” & “On and On,” and with Lester Flatt & Nashville Grass “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” & “Little Cabin Home on the Hill.” We were very lucky to hear this show. I was especially impressed with Bill & Ralph, and Bill & Lester. Later I was told Bill & Lester hadn’t talked for 26 years till today!!
Monroe treated Sab & Liao to dinner at a restaurant. We took down the tent and started packing up while Liao got a fiddle lesson from Tex Logan. We got on Cliff’s camper and headed to Indianapolis. From there we got on a Greyhound bus at 12:30 am. We passed Columbus, OH & Cambridge OH, then changed the bus at Pittsburgh, PA and arrived in Washington DC at 11am.
1971-6-21 Monday – Hyattsville, Maryland
Ed Ferris came and picked us up at a bus depot. We rode in Ed’s huge station wagon and straight to Dick’s house in Hyattsville, MD. About a 30-minute ride. Ed went home after dinner and we listened to records and tapes. Dick played a new recording of “Heaven” by Country Gentlemen.
Woke up at 11:30 am, breakfast of bacon & toast. Dick said John & Nancy Duffey were coming to dinner tonight and I assumed he was teasing us since he knew we loved John. Well, John and Nancy really showed up!! We had T-bone steak and then we jammed – Josh could play Charlie Waller guitar break on “Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party,” Sab played Adcock’s “Turkey Knob” and I kicked off “He Was a Friend of Mine” like John did. Also, he corrected our pronunciation on “That’s the Time” and arranged the ending of “Bridge Over the Troubled Water”, etc.
Tomorrow we were scheduled to record in a studio, but the banjo Sab borrowed from Ben Eldridge is not set up correctly, so Dick is taking it to Duffey’s store and the session is postponed. Dick played “Mrs. Robinson” by Eddie Adcock with Jimmy Gaudreau. Pretty cool.
At breakfast a plastic knife, fork and spoon Sab picked up were all bent & useless…everybody is busting out laughing. Dick & the 45 went to look at an apartment in Queenstown (Hyattsville, MD) and then grocery shopping. Big birthday turkey dinner for Sheila. We should have bought at least a birthday card. A birthday cake at 10 pm! Dick tells us that Duffey had fixed Ben’s banjo but no recording this week.