I was on a date, and immediately became enamored by the idea of going to see a “Japanese yodeling cowboy” singing old country and bluegrass tunes. As we walked through the door, even that apt description didn’t prepare me for the tiny, crooning man nearly dwarfed by his guitar, with his eyes closed in earnest. At the first sad strum of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mother, Queen of My Heart” I sat down in silence, mesmerized. When he offered his sweet, soft-spoken good-bye, the room erupted into applause. How in the world had I not heard of Toshio Hirano before?
Over the years, I’ve stopped in sporadically to see Toshio play at either Rite Spot or Amnesia, his two regular gigs in the Mission. The crowd is always a mix of ages and these dimly lit dives are pleasantly full but rarely packed. There are his loyal fans and those who hardly seem to notice he’s playing, but Toshio’s performance is unwavering. In his uniform of round, wire-rimmed glasses and tan cowboy hat, he consistently plays with the same precision, humility, and heart.
Does the gig get old? Does he ever write his own songs? How did a Japanese boy grow up to sing faithful renditions of old country
classics before an American audience who may or may not even know the songs? I was determined to find out.
The two-story house in Noe Valley that Toshio shares with his wife and three dogs is a homey mix of patterns, styles, and paints. The day I’m there, his two kids are home from college for the holidays and his wife is washing up after riding horses all afternoon. Toshio and I sit in the small room next to the kitchen that serves as his music room, but also as a library for his wife and as a sunroom for their three dogs.
a small wire-haired pooch runs in and takes his position on the couch. Toshio pulls a chair up to the sofa, laughing. “He knows. At the same time I practice guitar, I massage him with my feet.” He wonders aloud
what took Yosi so long to join us, and the dog doesn’t leave his side for the remainder of the afternoon.
Toshio’s story has been well documented. He was born in Tokyo in 1951. As a teenager in the mid-’60s he listened to the English-speaking rock music that swept through Japan: The Beach Boys, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones.
on a special radio program and, as he explains it, hit some part of his head: “BOOM! It was like every other kind of music I was ever exposed to just faded, and swishhh....” His eyes widen and his arms swing past his head as if speeding through a tunnel. He says he was probably sixteen or seventeen.
When asked about his first record purchase, Toshio leaps from his chair and crouches before his beloved music collection. His fingers tremble with excitement as he tugs at the album sleeves and describes the one record store in all of downtown Tokyo that carried this kind of American music. He imitates the scruffy old man who selected the LP for Toshio to take home. And he positively lights up when he tells me about the turntable that seemed to transform into an object from outer space the moment the needle touched vinyl and the sound of
the Country Gentlemen came out.
He was the only kid in his high school who knew about it. Moreover, the music just spoke to him in a way still difficult to explain. “Like an amoeba, I just respond,” he says. “It’s not about the melody or the lyrics. Back then I didn’t even understand what they were saying. But below that, at the base of the music, there’s a feeling.”
After graduating from college in 1974, Toshio took a four-month pilgrimage to America to see the land where this music was born. He traveled all over the south – to Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and beyond – and content with his exploration, returned to Japan to start a career and settle down.
But opportunities leapfrogged from one to another. A Japanese employer sent him to Atlanta, Georgia. Then, when that company folded, he managed a Japanese restaurant in Nashville. From there he went on to Minnesota, where a persistent promoter convinced him to move to Texas, and in Austin he was ushered into the music scene where he met Catherine, now his wife. They relocated to San Francisco in 1986, a strategic move made in part to be closer to his aging parents in Japan.
–among them Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, but Toshio’s reverence is reserved for Jimmie Rodgers. “When I listen to Jimmie Rodgers, oh my god, that base I was talking about!” he exclaims. “He digs in, brings out the deepest part of the soil he’s standing on. I can see the landscape he sings so clearly.”
Though Toshio once wrote an original song, he doesn’t have the desire to create his own music. “I don’t have anything coming out of me,” he explains. “What I enjoy is listening to this music, bringing it in and digesting, then spitting it out. When I spit it out, some part of me is in that music.”
He practices daily and technically improves, but isn’t done perfecting these songs even after 40 years. “I will not finish before my time,” Toshio says solemnly. “I’ve been playing ‘Peach Picking Time Down in Georgia’ since 1972. There’s always a next time to play it better.”
Perhaps within that methodology lies the magical element of discovery in seeing Toshio perform for the first time. For even if someone led you to him, his shows still feel like you’ve stumbled into something entirely unexpected. Somewhere between his heavy accent and humorous, self-effacing charm is simply a man who feels lucky enough to have discovered a music he loves. We should all be so lucky as to catch a listen.
Catch Toshio Hirano perform his regular gig on the second Monday of every month at Amnesia. While the future of Rite Spot is uncertain, be sure to check Toshiro’s website for shows and updates at toshiohirano.com.