In the hazy past of the early '70s, before the invention of video players and compact discs, it was very common to hear the following sort of propaganda coming out of the mouths of jingoistic Americans worried about the ever-growing Japanese economy. "Those Japanese! Why, they can imitate anything! They have figured out how to make McDonald's hamburgers, without the recipe! They have imitated all our technology. In fact, they even have guys who have figured out how to play bluegrass, just like Americans! Can you imagine that, a Japanese bluegrass band?" In the international music scene that has developed since these times, with so much global interchange of ideas and styles, and so many different unexpected fusions of musics taking place, perhaps the idea of a Japanese bluegrass band is not so startling after all. But many heads turned when the Bluegrass 45 group first came on the scene, and a common practice in a store specializing in this kind of music would be to play one of the Japanese group's discs as a blindfold test for unsuspecting customers, who of course would never be able to guess the origin of the band. Rebel records honcho Charles Freeland brought about the group's first American tour when he "discovered" them during a holiday in 1970. The band had been formed in 1968 by the brothers Saburo and Toshio Watanabe. The brothers apparently goaded each other into learning American bluegrass styles, Saburo coming up with a pretty good copy of the Charlie Monroe guitar-picking style, then picking up banjo after hearing a Flatt & Scruggs record in 1965. The earliest incarnation of the group was as a high school band, but the name Bluegrass 45 did not come about until a few years later, when another set of brothers came into the picture. These were Josh and Akira Otsuka. The band's first album, Run Mountain, was released in 1970. In the next year Bluegrass 45 was the first Japanese bluegrass group to tour in the United States and Canada, and most likely the only group in bluegrass history to wind up on the Grand Ole Opry as part of their inaugural tour. Rebel wound up releasing two albums by the group, Bluegrass 45 and Caravan. Group membership has fluctuated over the years, but the band celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1996 with another American tour, commemorating the birthdate of the group from the point of its first international tour rather than the time of its actual formation. Both Saburo Watanabe and Akira Otsuka have had active careers inside and outside the group not only as musicians but also as organizers, writers, and distributors. In 1971 Saburo started the first major Japanese distribution company for bluegrass, B.O.M. Service. The following year he organized the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, which developed into Japan's largest and longest-running bluegrass event. Saburo produced the first Tony Rice album for Red Clay records in 1973 and an album for the group New Tradition in 1976. In 1983 he began the publication of Moonshiner magazine. The Bluegrass Boys brought him in on bass as a replacement for Tater Tate the next year. In the '90s he received a series of honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association, including an Award of Merit in 1995 and Print Media Personality of the Year in 1998. He became secretary of the IBMA's Board of Directors in 1995. Akira Otsuka settled in the United States and has been extremely active as a mandolinist, performing with groups and bandleaders including Cathy Fink, the Blue Apples, the John Starling Band, Grazz Matazz, Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, Lex Price Jr., and Outlet. He also writes regularly about both bluegrass music and new recording technology, these activities encompassing liner notes, columns in Bluegrass Unlimited, and a book on midi recording basics. A more recent addition to the group has been mandolinist Tara Inoue, who relocated to Johnson City, TN, in the late '90s, working with Jeff White, Peter Rowan, Frank Wakefield, and Grammy winner Allison Brown. The group's contribution to the bluegrass repertoire? Why, it's "Fuji Mountain Breakdown," of course.
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