Japanese Musician Finds Real Country In Payson

Bluegrass less popular in Japan than seaweed pizza


Tetsuji Sakano sat in Vertielee Floyd's living room Thursday afternoon playing music with his friend Bob Crose of Pine, singing "Will the Circle be Unbroken" in Japanese.

Sakano visits Payson whenever he gets enough time off from his job making rice cake and seaweed pizzas and more traditional pizza pies at Big Bear's Pizza in Shimonoseki City, Japan.

In Japan, he has to play the country and bluegrass tunes that he loves in the parking lot at Big Bear's Pizza. Sakano lives with his father, and he only tolerates traditional Japanese music in their home.

In fact, Sakano's musical tastes are only shared by about 5,000 other people in Japan. In his home town, he is one of 10 musicians who play the American-born music, and, he said, they have no audience, only each other.

When Sakano was 15 years old, his friend's brother introduced him to bluegrass and country.

Then, years later, when Sakano was working at an English school in Japan, he met a man whose sister-in-law organized fiddling contests. The man he met was Vertielee Floyd's brother-in-law, Rich Reynolds.

Reynolds found out about Sakano's passion for pickin' because the young man carried a violin case to work.

He told Sakano about Vertielee and the fiddling contests she organizes in Payson, and it wasn't long before the young man was on his way to the land of the tall pines for the first time.

Sakano is now 36. He's made five trips to Payson and has a number of friends here, among them, Floyd and Erma and Bob Crose of Pine, whom he stays with when he comes to visit.

The Croses take him to fiddling festivals in Ajo and Blythe, Ariz. Sakano won both the flat pick guitar and banjo competitions when he went to the Blythe fiddling festival three years ago, but he can't enter Payson's event because it's only open to Arizona residents.

He can, however, go fishing.

"He comes all the way from Japan to go fishing," said Erma Crose.

Her husband didn't have much to say. He was just too busy playing music with his friend from Japan, an opportunity that comes along only once in a while, when the young man can save enough money to make the trip.

"Key of D," Bob Crose said, and the two took off playing "The Entertainer."

Bob Crose won first place in the senior division of the Payson contest last fall. He's 80 years old, but when he and Sakano start playing, the music bridges the gap between their generations and their cultures.

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