bluegrass and country music artist
vocal, guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle
“Kazuhiro Inaba has emerged as a highly regarded Japanese banjo and guitar picker.”
- from ‘Bluegrass’ by Richard D. Smith
Kazuhiro Inaba has established himself as one of top professional bluegrass artists in Japan.
Since the start of his career, he has performed widely in Japan and the United States, and he has recorded with some of the greats in bluegrass music today, including Buddy Spicher, Bobby Hicks, Butch Robins, Mike Compton, Keith Little, Sammy Shelor, Roland White and more.
Kazuhiro Inaba continues to spread bluegrass music to audiences in Japan, as well as share his own heartfelt love of this American music form with audiences in the United States.
Hailing from the Kansai area of Japan, Kazuhiro ‘Kaz’ Inaba was born in Osaka in 1960, and currently lives in Nishinomiya City, Hyogo, Japan.
Inaba started playing the 5-string banjo when he was fifteen years old.
While growing up, his biggest influences were his father (also a banjo player) and his brother, a top-shelf mandolinist. Inaba and his brother began performing bluegrass music in the Kansai area of Japan in the mid 1970s.
In the early 1980s, Inaba made his first trip to the United States where he made his first inroads into the American bluegrass scene.
In 1983, he took second place in the bluegrass banjo contest playing #Rockwood Deer Chase” at the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia.
As he became more established in his chosen career as a professional musician, Inaba made more and more appearances at festivals and music venues in the U.S. and Canada.
Among the places he has had the honor to perform at are the McLain Family Festival, Galax Fiddler’s Convention, Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival, Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival, Salmon Arm Bluegrass Festival and Kamloops Bluegrass Festival, and the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival.
Whenever he is in Nashville, Inaba often performs at the Station Inn. On one visit there, in 1995, he shared the stage with Keith Little, Bobby Hicks, Don Rigsby, Randy Howard and Missy Raines as the Bluegrass Brothers.
In 2007, Inaba joined Butch Robins’ World International Bluegrass Band as the lead vocalist and guitarist. The band performed several shows in Virginia including a spot at the IBMA 2007 Fan Fest, and on the TV program “Song Of the Mountains”, which was later aired on PBS.
To date, Inaba has released seven solo albums. His first, ‘Shore To Shore’ came out in 1986, followed by his second, ‘Hard Times, Come Again No More’ three years later.
The IBMA selected one of Inaba’s tracks (“Worries On My Mind”) for inclusion on its 1992 ‘Long Journey Home’, a collection of music by various bluegrass musicians from around the world.
Throughout his recording career, he has worked with many well-known musicians on his albums, such as Herschel Sizemore, Bobby Hicks, Butch Robins (‘Goin’ Across the Sea’, 1993); Buddy Spicher, Bobby Hicks, Randy Howard, Ronnie McCoury, Roland White, Keith Little, Gene Libbea, and Gene Wooten (‘Dixie Dream’, 1998); Buddy Spicher, Bob Moore, Kathy Chiavola, Keith Little (‘Teardrop on a Rose’, 2003); Buddy Spicher, Lloyd Green, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Charlie McCoy, Pete Wade, Dave Rachine and Bob Moore (‘Country Heart’, 2009).
In 1994, Inaba formed his own production company, Office White Oak, which among other things, organizes concert tours for bluegrass musicians to perform in Japan. The first of these was a charity bluegrass concert following the 1995 Hanshin/Kobe earthquake which featured Inaba along with Butch Robins, Dudley Connell, and Andy Owens. Since then, Office White Oak has organized several Japan tours for artists such as the Lonesome River Band, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, Butch Robins (banjo), Larry Stephenson (mandolin), Keith Little (banjo), Dudley Connell (guitar), Frank Wakefield (mandolin), Sammy Shelor (banjo), and Mike Compton (mandolin). Besides concert promotion, since 1998, Inaba also organized yearly trips to the U.S. to allow Japanese fans of bluegrass and country music to visit historical places connected to the music and its performers and hear the music firsthand.
Naturally, Inaba is also busy performing music in Japan. With an active schedule, Inaba adapts his performance style to fit a variety of venues and audiences, either going solo, or as leader of his group, the Bluegrass Ramble.
The band, formed in 1999, won first place that same year and the next year at the National Bluegrass Championship in Shiga, Japan. Marking its 10th anniversary, the band had the honor of performing at the 2009 Country Gold festival in Kumamoto, Japan.
Also a bluegrass festival organizer himself, Inaba has held his annual Kazuhiro Inaba Bluegrass Camp in Minoh, Osaka since 2012.
In 2014, Inaba has been selected to perform at Wayne Henderson Music Festival & Guitar Competition in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. Inaba was accompanied with the legendary fiddler, Bobby Hicks, Butch Robins, Scott Freeman and Mark Ramsey.
Inaba had the Bluegrass Buddies Japan Tour with Mike Compton (mandolin), Keith Little (banjo) and Blaine Sprouse (fiddle) in Tokyo, Kumamoto, and Osaka in 2016.
In 2018, Sammy Shelor (banjo) of the Lonesome River Band played as a guest on one of Inaba’s concert series in Kobe in 2018.
In 2019, Inaba was joined by his long-time ‘bluegrass brother,’ Keith Little, and performed as the “International Brothers” with Ed Neff, Steve Pottier, Josh Tharp and Annie Staninec at the CBA Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley, CA. They also performed at Wakamatsu 2019 with Blaine Sprouse and Crying Uncle.
Inaba has made TV and radio appearances both in Japan and in U.S.A.
He also holds workshops and lectures to teach people about country songs at several culture centers in Osaka, Kobe and Tokyo. Through singing and explanation, he acquaints participants with the background of the songs and the culture of American music.
In 2022, Inaba gave a lecture about “the History of American Popular Music” as a guest speaker at Ryukoku University of Kyoto, Japan.
Inaba produced a new “Live” compilation album of the Bluegrass Ramble which was released at the Bluegrass Ramble 200th show in October 2022.
In 2023, the 10th Annual Kazuhiro Inaba Bluegrass Camp was held on May 6.
Selected Discography of Kazuhiro Inaba
1986 Shore To Shore (RC-107)
1989 Hard Times, Come Again No More (RC-109)
1993 Goin’ Across the Sea (HHH-CD-104)
1999 Dixie Dream (CCCD-0166)
2002 Country Songs For Singing’ (SBR-1001)
2003 Teardrop On A Rose’ (CCCD-0216)
2009 Country Heart (SBR-9001)
2022 Kazuhiro Inaba & The Bluegrass Ramble “Live” (SBR-2201)
Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Kazuhiro Inaba fosters bluegrass in Japan
by Lee Zimmerman
December 3, 2020
As unlikely as it might have once seemed, the Japanese have always had a fascination with American music. Their preference for jazz was evident immediately after the end of the Second World War, and with the advent of the ’50s and ’60s, that obsession grew and prospered while coming to include rock, country, avant-garde, and all other forms of American musical expression. It was fostered early on by the influx of service men and woman who were stationed on Japanese soil, and then nurtured and expanded steadily from there.
In the midst of that cultural crossover, bluegrass took hold as well, resulting in any number of Japanese musicians who have proven themselves the equals of those who first purveyed it in the American heartland. Among those dedicated disciples is one Kazuhiro Inaba, widely recognized as one of his country’s most accomplished guitar, banjo, and mandolin pickers and a superb singer as well. Having made his mark in his native country, as well as with his frequent visits to the US, he’s had the opportunity to perform with an increasing number of American bluegrass greats.
Naturally then, Inaba is quick to cite the influence of American music on bluegrass aficionados and enthusiasts back home. “I think that some American mountain music sounds similar to old Japanese folk songs played throughout the country,” Inaba says, noting that the banjo happens to look and sound similar to the shamisen, a traditional three-string Japanese instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi. “In the 1950s, we in Japan started to be exposed to a lot of American culture. In that time, classic country hits like Tennessee Waltz, Molly Darling and I Really Don’t Want To Know became very popular here. Beginning in the 1970s, many top American bluegrass artists like Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, J.D. Crowe, the David Grisman Quintet, New Grass Revival, and many more began touring in Japan.”
Born in Osaka in 1960, Inaba began playing 5-string banjo at the age of 15. “My father, Etsuro Inaba, and his sister, Kayo Ito, had been interested in country and bluegrass music since their youth, and they listened to that music at home,” Inaba recalls. “My brother Masatoshi started to play the mandolin around 1974. When I became interested in playing banjo, my father and I took lessons together.”
It was little wonder then that making music became a family business once Inaba and Masatoshi began performing together in the mid ’70s. By the early ’80s, Inaba had brought his own skills to the US, and in 1983, he won a second place award at the prestigious Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia. In short order, he became a regular on the festival circuit throughout the States and Canada. He continues to make frequent stops in Nashville to play at the iconic Station Inn, where he’s shared stages with such renowned players as Missy Raines, Bobby Hicks, Don Rigsby, Keith Little, and Randy Howard in a sometimes-supergroup known as the Bluegrass Brothers. That led to a stint with Butch Robins’ World International Bluegrass Band, which found him serving as the group’s lead singer and guitarist.
Inaba has also released seven solo albums over the past 35 years – Shore To Shore (1986), Hard Times, Come Again No More (1989), Goin’ Across the Sea (1993), Dixie Dream (1999), Country Songs for Singing (2002), Teardrop on a Rose (2003), and Country Heart (2009). Many of those recordings have featured special guests, a roll call of top talents that’s included Bobby Hicks, Butch Robins, Roland White, Buddy Spicher, Lloyd Green, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Pete Wade, and Charlie McCoy. In addition to serving up his original instrumentals, he mostly sticks to standards, including songs written by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Doc Watson, and Larry Sparks.
“I only sing in English,” Inaba explains. “Unfortunately, I don’t think many of my audiences understand the lyrics. However, I usually try to express the feeling of the songs as much as possible. The audiences here enjoy the melodies and the sounds very much, even though they have a hard time understanding the meanings.”
In addition to his frequent radio and television appearances back home, he’s also a successful concert promoter and a regular at workshops throughout Japan. For the past eight years, he’s held his own homegrown bluegrass festival and retreat in Osaka – the Kazuhiro Inaba Bluegrass Camp – while continuing to sponsor annual trips to the US for Japanese bluegrass fans who want to experience American music firsthand in the music’s original environs. Likewise, he consistently tours, both solo and with his award-winning group, Bluegrass Ramble, and makes a variety of festival appearances with a revolving cast of international artists.
“Bluegrass sounds pure and natural to many people around the world,” Inaba concludes when asked to explain its international popularity. “The acoustic sound is always pleasant for all ages to listen to.”
About the Author
Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications – No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word he writes.
Bluegrass Ramble – 20 years of picking
By Richard Thompson
July 5, 2019
Musicians everywhere love to get together to play and if they are with long-term friends so much the better.
Japanese guitar player and vocalist Kazuhiro Inaba isn’t any exception and the same goes for Sōhei Itō (mandolin and vocals), Hajime Tsutakawa (fiddle and vocals), Yuji Ishihira (bass and vocals) and Randall ‘Randy’ Cotten (banjo and vocals), the current line-up for Bluegrass Ramble, a band that in February (2019) marked 20 years of bluegrass music.
To be fair, Cotten, from Illinois, didn’t join the band until 2000 and Itō even later, in 2015.
Kazuhiro Inaba, one of the premier bluegrass musicians in Japan, was born in Osaka in 1960 and started playing 5-string banjo when he was 15 years old. His biggest influences have been his old-time banjo playing father, Etsuro – one of the earliest country music fans in Japan – and his brother. He started playing bluegrass music with his mandolin-playing older brother, Masatoshi, in the mid-1970s. The siblings formed the New Smiling Mountain Boys with whom Kazu played banjo until the late 1980s.
A few years later Inaba switched to guitar when he found that it was easier for him to sing when playing that instrument than it was when playing the banjo.
Cowboy Jack, from the original Carter Family, features some deft guitar work from Inaba ….
His biggest influences were banjo aces Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, Don Stover, J.D. Crowe and Bobby Thompson, while vocally he has learned from Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Larry Sparks, Jennifer Warnes, and the Statler Brothers.
The younger brother formed Bluegrass Ramble in 1999 and they started their monthly bluegrass concerts in Osaka.
By that time multi-instrumentalist Kazuhiro Inaba had recorded two LPs and three CDs. But I digress.
The original members of Bluegrass Ramble were Kazuhiro Inaba, Tsutakawa and Ishihira, and Yuji Mukai (banjo and vocals), Kazuyoshi Onishi (mandolin and vocals). Mukai doesn’t play in a band currently, while Onishi is a member of the Backwoods Mountaineers band.
When he was a high school student Yuji Ishihira saw Japanese folk singer, Tomoya Takaishi, and that led to Ishihira going to the Lost City bluegrass music club in his home town, Kobe, to listen to music there.
At the same time, he listened to his friend’s Flatt & Scruggs’ Mercury recordings and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. Right after that, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bill Monroe performed in Japan, and Ishihira became even more interested in bluegrass music.
His primary bass-playing influences are Tom Gray, Roy Huskey, Jr. and Bob Moore.
Hajime Tsutakawa is another who took an interest in bluegrass music while he was a high school student. It was there that he began playing guitar with a friend who played the banjo. By Tsutakawa’s own admission, if he hadn’t met his banjo-playing school friend then, he doesn’t think he would have gone on to play bluegrass. It was then that he began to take an interest in the music.
Soon after, another guitar player joined the group, so Tsutakawa switched to playing a mandolin, and the three of them formed their own band.
Then, while in his 20s, he joined another band that already had a mandolin player, so Tsutakawa decided to learn to play the fiddle, the instrument that he always wanted to play anyway, it transpires.
That Star Belongs to Me comes from the Lilly Brothers’ (with Don Stover) repertoire …..
The Bluegrass Ramble band gave its first performance in 1999 at Minoya Hall in Osaka, Japan, playing there for two years (1999-2000). Since then, for five years, their appearances were at the Tsuji Hisako Memorial Ensemble Hall (2001-2005). During the following three years Bluegrass Ramble played for six months at Theatrical Otenin (2006), one year at OCC Hall (2006-2007) and one year back at Minoya Hall (2007-2008), all in the Osaka area.
Then, since 2009, the band has had gigs every other month (usually in the odd numbered months). “For the last 10 years, we have played at Mister Kelly’s, a jazz club in downtown Osaka, that provides great sound and serves a variety of meals and drinks,” Inaba relates.
In addition to their regular performances in Osaka, Bluegrass Ramble has performed at the world-famous Rocky Top bar, restaurant, and, most importantly, music venue in Tokyo, as well as other places throughout Japan.
The band won first place at Shiga Bluegrass Festival Band Championship in 1999, clearly demonstrating early talent and excellent teamwork, and again in 2000.
After four years at university Randy Cotten, who grew up in a small town in southern Illinois, was ready to see the world. He had managed to learn a bit of the Japanese language at school and made some Japanese friends, too. He says, “the biggest encouragement was an American friend, a former bandmate who had already come to Japan. He told me that bluegrass was alive and well here, with lots of good pickers, festivals and venues to play.”
Cotten was also told that he could easily find a job teaching English; in 1987 native English speakers were in great demand at what were known as conversation schools.
To cut a long story short, Cotten found a job in Nagasaki, fell in love with Japan and managed to find some good Japanese bluegrass musicians who happened to be in need of a banjo player. Eventually, he began to feel that he wanted a more solid, long term position at a university in Japan, so he returned to the U.S. to get a degree in teaching English as a foreign language. Cotten returned to Japan in 1994 and has been there ever since.
Having always been an active part of the bluegrass community in Japan, Cotten thinks that having had a couple of opportunities to pick with Inaba led to him being asked to join his band full time in 2000.
In this video Inaba, switching to banjo, joins Cotten in playing a banjo medley ….
Throughout the years, Bluegrass Ramble’s regular performances have been enhanced by quite a few guests from the U.S. such as Keith Little, Butch Robins, Sammy Shelor, Jennifer Strickland, and Mike Compton in addition to many talented Japanese musicians.
In 2009, quite fortuitously, the band was invited to play at the annual Country Gold international country music festival in Kumamoto, Japan. Excerpts of the show were later broadcast on NHK, Japanese national public television, markedly enhancing their profile.
Since 2011, with the invaluable help of the Minoh American Music Society and many others, Inaba has shown his support for Japanese bluegrass musicians at large, hosting an indoor bluegrass festival each year in Minoh City, near Osaka. Not only does the Bluegrass Ramble perform at the festival, but many other fine amateur pickers in Japan get a chance to demonstrate their respective abilities. This festival also gives an opportunity for some great university student bluegrass bands to perform on stage in front of an audience.
Mandolin player Sōhei Itō was influenced, primarily, by his father, who also plays the mandolin and took him to various jam sessions and festivals. As a consequence, he became interested in playing the banjo and mandolin.
Itō would listen to his father’s record collection particularly those by Country Gazette, New Grass Revival, paying special attention to Sam Bush, and another mandolin giant David Grisman.
Other influences were Alan Bibey and Tim O’Brien, to name a few.
As his tastes in bluegrass music developed, he enjoyed Hot Rize, Blue Highway and IIIrd Tyme Out.
For this arrangement of Daybreak in Dixie Itō and Inaba (also playing mandolin) are joined by Kazuyoshi Onishi, Bluegrass Ramble’s original mandolin player ….
Reflecting on the band’s longevity Inaba says ….
“The Bluegrass Ramble has been so grateful and lucky to have been able to continuously give shows without any cancellations since the band was formed.”
On February 16, 2019, the band had a successful 20th anniversary show, marking their 181st gig together. “Hopefully, we will be able to continue to enjoy performing bluegrass music for many more years to come,” Inaba adds.
In Despair was written by Juanita Pennington and Bill Monroe and was first recorded by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in May 1957. In this instance the song closes a set by Bluegrass Ramble …
Unfortunately, the Bluegrass Ramble hasn’t released a CD yet. Although Inaba is thinking about putting out a live album before too long. Judging by the video clips the band really has something different to offer.
About the Author
Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specializing in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I’m On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.