Prelude to the Bluegrass 45 United States Tour in 1971

Last week we introduced you to bluegrass music in Japan, the Otsuka Brothers, and the formation of the Japanese bluegrass band Bluegrass 45.  In this week’s article (what we are calling “week 0”) Akira Otsuka will reveal how meeting Ian and Sylvia Tyson at the Osaka Expo in the summer of 1970 led to a meeting with Dick Freeland of Rebel Records.  Freeland was the person responsible for Bluegrass 45 traveling to the United States in 1971.

The following is from Akira Otsuka:

Ian Tyson in Kobe.
Ian Tyson in Kobe

Folk Boom:

In 1968 as I entered Kwansei Gakuin (needs space between i & G) University in Nishinomiya, Japan, I joined the American Folksong Club and started playing with the Hickory Hollows bluegrass band (its name taken from a banjo instrumental written by Doug Dillard).  Even in Japan it was during the height of hootenanny days and the folk circle had many “Modern Folk” type groups like Brothers Four, Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary.  I was a diehard bluegrass player, but still I welcomed chances to hear other genre of music.

Osaka Expo:

So, I was excited to find out a Canadian folk duet, Ian & Sylvia, were coming to World Expo in Osaka the summer of 1970.  The Osaka Expo was the first to be held in Japan, 77 counties participated and more than 64 million people attended between March to September.   As you can imagine, there were long lines everywhere. Especially popular exhibits were ones like the American Pavilion—with a moon rock & moon lander—and the Fuji exhibit with the first IMAX theater and roller coasters.  Many of them provided entertainment for people waiting in line.  The American pavilion had a bluegrass trio—the Ringshouters from Washington D.C.—and I had a weekly gig at the San Francisco pavilion.  Canadian had groups like Ian & Sylvia from Toronto and the Irish Rovers from BC (incidentally I bought a Gibson A50 mandolin from one of the members) performing in its beautiful courtyard.  They also hired Japanese groups and I played there with both Hickory Hollows & Bluegrass 45.  By the time Ian & Sylvia arrived, I had access to the backstage.

Ian & Silvia at Expo 70.
Ian & Silvia at Expo 70

Ian & Sylvia:

When they arrived, the first thing that surprised me was that they were no longer a “Folk Duet” but a full Folk-Country-Rock band, Great Speckled Bird, with Amos Garrett on Telecaster, Buddy Cage on pedal steel (for bluegrass fans, the original steel player was Bill Keith), N.D. Smart on drums and Jim Colegrove on bass.  Of course, Ian & Sylvia’ vocals and songwriting (“Four Strong Winds,”“Someday Soon”…) were the main focus but when they played Buck Owens’ “Buckaroo,” my jaw dropped off.  A country instrumental number with catchy melody had morphed into a hot number with steel & electric guitar playing harmony lines and amazing solos.

Many people are familiar with Buddy Case’s work as a member of New Riders of Purple Sage that he joined few years later.  Amos Garrett became a guitar player’s hero when he was featured on Maria Maulder’s Grammy nominated pop hit “Midnight at Oasis” in 1973.

If you’re interested in Ian & Sylvia, Garcia/Dead, Flying Burrito & Janis Joplin, you should watch a movie Festival Express.

Green Room:

• While I was talking to Ian in a green room, I found out Ian was a good friend of John Duffey & Country Gentlemen.  I didn’t ask exactly how they met but I was told Ian & Sylvia used to play at the Cellar Door club in Washington D.C. and after their show was over, they’d walk a few blocks to Shamrock to see the Gentlemen.

・Another time I was sitting across from Ian and we were talking about John Duffey.  Out of blue Ian said “Yeah, John installed a pick-up on this Martin.”  The Martin guitar he was holding on his lap.  I had to ask him if I could touch it because I just couldn’t believe I could touch something my hero had touch!

・ One day the Bluegrass 45 was playing at the Canadian Pavilion and Ian was watching us rehearse.  Somehow our conversation led to a song “Handsome Molly” and Ian asked us if we knew it.  So my brother, Josh, started singing it but Ian stopped us.  He said that’s how Duffey and the Gents do it.  Let me see your guitar and I’ll show you how I do it….

・This one is from Masatoshi Fukutomi, a guitar player of Hickory Hollows:  I was hanging out in the back room one day and I was brave enough to ask Ian if I could try his Martin.  Well, he let me play it and he asked me to sing a song.  I’m not a lead singer but I happened to remember chorus and first verse of “I’m Using My Bible For a Roadmap” so I started singing it.  Then Ian started singing tenor vocal to it and Amos joined on baritone.  It felt so good and that’s something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

Ian Tyson in Kobe
Ian Tyson in Kobe

A Day Off:

Ian & Sylvia were performing several times a day for two weeks, but they had one day off.  My friend Nariyoshi Yakashiro Terajima and I decided to take them out on their day off.  When we arrived at their hotel, Sylvia was not feeling well and only Ian went with us.  We drove to Kobe and visited our friend Akiko Iizuka (maiden name Yokoyama).  Her grandmother was a Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sadou) teacher and she served us tea in an old fashionedway.  Akiko’s mother not only taught Kadou/Ikebana/Flower Arrangement but she played old Japanese instruments like Koto.  After we had a lunch, we stepped out to a garden and jammed—Ian on guitar, Nariyoshi on banjo, Akiko on vocal & me on mandolin.

Interesting note: 18 years later, Akiko’s mother was living in a retirement community.  One winter day she was watching Calgary Winter Olympic opening ceremony on TV in a community room when Ian Tyson came on and sung “Four Strong Winds.”  She told her friends and staff that he came to her home many years ago and sung—sadly nobody believed her.  (Ian Tyson appears starting at 1:00)

Dick Freeland & Bluegrass 45:

Less than a month after Ian & Sylvia went back to Canada, Dick Freeland of Rebel Records brought his family to Japan for 1) family vacation and see the Expo, and  2) to see the bluegrass market in Japan.  They were in Japan July 3rd thru 12th.  The details of Dick & Bluegrass 45 tour will start on Bluegrass Unlimited online next week,but in short Dick liked the band and invited us to tour the US the following year.  So, we did the tour, recorded 3 LPs for his label, appeared in a movie Bluegrass Country Soul.


Fast forward to December of 2013, I was visiting Dick & his family in West Virginia for Christmas.   One night after dinner, I decided to ask Dick a question that I had for more than 40 years: “Why did you invite BG45 to the States?”  Dick’s answer was “Oh, I had a recommendation.”  I said “What?  Who could that be?”  Dick simply said “Ian Tyson did.”  

“Wow!” was the only thing I could say.  That famous folk/country singer Ian Tyson changed all of our lives forever.

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