I was only playing Jimmie Rodgers in cafes, and they treated me like a big star." He simply wanted to share the music he loved, but the novelty of his act became a burden.
San Francisco promised freedom from celebrity, and from audiences for whom country music is a birthright. "I started feeling, wow, I'm reintroducing old American music to Americans." Ultimately this role evolved into a neat byproduct of his act. "My original pleasure is still the same," he continued. "Every time I sing an old country tune, I just feel so good." Now his satisfaction is in part due to the torch he bears for America's musical heritage, "If [the audience] likes the songs, I tell them, 'Buy Jimmie Rodgers.' "
The exchange goes both ways. Hirano, a self-confessed guitar amateur, learns songs based on suggestions from audience members. On any given night, he and his band bassist Kenan O'Brien and violinist Mayumi Urgino play 25 songs, less than half by the Blue Yodeler. Hirano has yet to perform the one original song he has written in the 40 years since he first picked up a guitar.
There's something utterly refreshing about an artist with nothing to sell. Hirano's only ambition is to keep his once-a-month gigs at Amnesia and the Rite Spot, where the pass-the-hat informality is infectious and the singing is as authentic as an early Victrola recording. A performer for whom authorship is foreign and attention is baneful, Hirano finds his fulfillment in participating. "I am fortunate to have run into this old music," he told me, grinning.
Second Mondays, 8:30 p.m., free
853 Valencia, SF
Also last Saturdays, 9 p.m., free
2099 Folsom, SF