OffStage with Saburo Watanabe
Have you ever wondered about the offstage world of a professional musician? Every month in this column, bluegrass now will provide a glimpse into the lives of some of your favorite bluegrass stars. To see captions, just move your cursor over the photos!
That's the life of Saburo Watanabe, one of Japan's most dedicated supporters of bluegrass music. Sab was first captivated by bluegrass when he was a teenager. “I happened to hear Flatt & Scruggs from my brother's collection,” he says, in charmingly colloquial English. “I fell in love with 'The Old Home Town' though I didn't catch the words . . . it was strange, but not Scruggs' banjo!”
After learning to play mandolin, Sab co-founded Japan's legendary Bluegrass 45. The band toured the United States and Canada for three months in 1971, traveling to gigs and festivals. “I saw Bill and Lester sung together first time after 20 years. It was the first Bean Blossom for John Hartford's AereoPlane Band, Bluegrass Alliance with Sam Bush and Tony Rice, Jim & Jesse with Carl Jackson . . . you want more?”
The young musician was hooked. Bluegrass 45 toured the U.S. again in 1972, but this time, Sab stayed home. He'd already launched his empire: B.O.M. Service Ltd., a bluegrass and related music distributor and mail-order shop. Sab's brother Toshio joined a few years later; the company is now in its 33rd year.
He also started Red Clay Records, a label whose name literally came from the land of bluegrass. “When we finished the 1971 tour, I got home and open the suitcase, and the mud spread out on tatami mats in my house. It was North Carolina red clay from Carlton Haney's Camp Springs Festival!” Tony Rice, The New Tradition, and The Sidemen all recorded for the label.
Exhilarated by everything he'd seen in his travels, Sab founded the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival. “I just wanted outdoor festival with lots of jam sessions, overnight under the moon like yours.” The festival now welcomes over 100 acts each year, “any band think that we're bluegrass,” as Sab explains. A decade later, Sab began publishing MoonShiner, to fill the void left by the demise of legendary Japanese bluegrass publication June Apple. The small magazine has a circulation of about 2,000.
On January 17, 1995, a huge earthquake devastated Kobe, Bluegrass 45's hometown. It took over 6,000 lives. Sab grieved for the city, and found himself evaluating his own path and priorities. “When I look around, I found family, friends and music is so important, you know?”
That fall, Sab took his family to the U.S. for the first time, to IBMA's World of Bluegrass. He was sitting in the audience at the awards show when he heard Butch Robins call his name. Sab and his brother Toshio accepted the IBMA Award of Merit for their contribution and dedication to bluegrass music. “I'm pretty sure I'm the first guy who raised family with nothing but bluegrass in Japan. I'm still having a hard time in money-wise, but I think I was right to hang in bluegrass when I saw my family's happy faces by the river of Ohio.”
Today Sab lives with his wife, Yuriko, in Takarazuka, a city on the edge of the Rokko mountains. “Since I'm in bluegrass business in Japan which means not rich, the house is small with five rooms and small garden for my dog to run around. I don't have a car because we have very nice [public] transportation, and I have a pair of nice legs!” Yuriko teaches English in their home and plays fiddle. Sab's son, Taro, once a member of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Band, is a professional mandolinist in Tokyo. His daughter, Yuiko, works for Tom's Cabin, a production company, and plays guitar. Sab himself has played fiddle in a band called Monroe's Walk for almost 30 years.
Though Sab's home is small, he has entertained many American friends, like musician Peter Rowan, who can actually find his way from the airport to Sab's place by train and on foot. ”I love to take care of bluegrass friends, just the same you guys did for me while I'm in the States.” Sab tries carefully to explain the appeal of a music that seems as foreign to Japan as the game of baseball. “It was certainly an American tradition when it was born,” he says. “However, I'm so sorry, it's not an American music anymore but an international music. I love bluegrass more than anybody but it's only a word. I have my own bluegrass inside me, and you have yours.”
Visit Saburo Watanabe online at www.bomserv.com.