Toshio Hirano spreads the C&W gospel
Ask Toshio Hirano how he discovered honky-tonk music and he replies with the question: "How much time do you have"? It's not a simple answer and he explains his transformation from fanatic to performing artist the same way a musicologist might discuss the development of recording techniques from the Edison cylinder to digital audiotape. Hirano is part teacher, anyway and part student still discovering his roots at age 57.
His audiences can be divided into two camps: faithful veterans and incredulous newbies. No doubt the newbies are brought to gigs with reassurances akin to "No, really, it's good." They enter the bar together, and Hirano is onstage doing one from the repertoire: maybe it's Hank Thompson's "Humpty Dumpty Heart." Hirano's vocal twang, inflected with his Japanese accent, wraps around the hillbilly syllables of the song as if his native Tokyo were an Appalachian homestead. Meanwhile his acoustic guitar, with its jangling hammer-ons, rattles over the chord changes like a train passing over railroad ties, convincing the audience that this is no novelty, but an authentic piece of Americana. The believer looks eager: "Are you feeling this?" Hirano has already charmed the first-timer, who inevitably wonders, "This is crazy. What's his deal?"
Japan was awash with American records during the early 1960s, and although Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley held sway in the schoolyards, it was Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and the Kingston Trio who captured Hirano's imagination. From there it wasn't a far leap to his first bluegrass record by the Country Gentlemen which he could only acquire from a specialty shop. "It was a funny feeling [to be] listening to music that not a lot of people knew," he confessed on a recent Saturday afternoon, flanked by a wall of used books at the Mission Creek Café. "I felt cool."
The galvanizing moment in his early education came in 1972 when a friend lent him a Jimmie Rodgers record. "On the cover he was leaning over a Cadillac with a cowboy hat, looking so good," Hirano remembered. "It was recorded in 1928, before Hank Williams and before Bill Monroe." Rodgers' reading of "Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia" was the Big Bang for Hirano, an event that still roars 35 years later. "When I play any songs the sound of Jimmie Rodgers is in there," he explained. "I would not be singing Hank Williams without Jimmie Rodgers. Every song fits on the foundation of his sound."
In 1975, on his 24th birthday, Hirano arrived in Atlanta, Ga., an employee in a Japanese mushroom enterprise. "I don't believe in God in the religious sense but I do believe in fate," he offered as a way to sum up his American life, a pilgrimage of sorts cast with fortuitous acquaintances and serendipity. It wasn't long before his mushroom interest went south, and facing an expiring work visa, Hirano chanced into a job as the maître d' in Music City's first Japanese restaurant, where he routinely catered to Nashville's biggest country stars.
Three years later Hirano was enrolled in a guitar course in Red Wing, Minn. a town bisected by Highway 61, he notes. At the end of the term, the class held a party where everyone had to play a song. "There was a punk rock guy from San Antonio in the class and he said, 'Toshio, did you just play Hank Sr.? You have to come to Texas.' "
Once installed in Austin, Hirano busked on the streets and played gigs his friend arranged. "I never thought about performing until he encouraged me," Hirano said. But an Asian man playing old-time country standards in Texas attracts a kind of attention that is not altogether genuine. "I was overly welcomed. 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.
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