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Japanese Musician Makes Inroads Into Old Time Appalachia

Shohei Tsutsumi
Shohei Tsutsumi plays dulcimer at a jam in Galax. Tsutsumi has won back-to-back first place prizes in the dulcimer at the Galax Fiddler’s Convention. He plays a variety of other instruments, and hand-constructed a fiddle during his time in the U.S. (Ben Paviour/VPM)

*This story is part of the VPM series Virginia's Country Music Roots.

It’s a balmy Friday night at the Galax Fiddler’s Convention, and Shohei Tsutsumi is preparing to go on stage. For some people waiting in line with him, the competition is an afterthought, a chance to earn back the price of their campsite. 

But Tsutsumi takes the event very seriously. He rarely cracks a smile when he plays, and moves with a focused intensity that earned him top prize in the dulcimer last year. Tonight, he’s at ease as he warms up with a group of friends competing in the old time competition.

“But maybe once we get behind the stage, I’ll be nervous,” Tsutsumi says with a laugh. 

 I ask him the name of his band, and he consults Galax banjo player Trish Fore.

“Dixie Wildcats,” Fore says.

Dixie Wildcats playing
The Dixie Wildcats take the stage in the first night of the old time band competition at the Galax Fiddler’s Convention (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

Tsutsumi stands out a little bit at the convention, where Confederate flags seem to outnumber people of color. The Osaka native has shoulder-length hair and favors hoop earrings. Most people at the fiddler’s convention are older and white; some have family who’ve lived in the area for generations. 

These are the people that have become some of Tsutsumi’s closest friends. 

Tsutsumi lived in the U.S. for three years and has a perspective few others share. As a scholar, he’s studied what it means to be an outsider in Appalachian folk music. As an artist, he’s lived out that question by moving to the mountains of rural North Carolina. In the process, he’s become a widely respected musician. 

It’s a journey that began while Tsutsumi was still in college. At the time, he was still a heavy metal fan.

“Like Ozzy Osborne, you know, like Kiss,” he says.

Attendees at the Old Fiddlers' Convention
Tens of thousands of old time and bluegrass fans converge on Galax, Virginia every year for what organizers say is the largest and oldest convention of its kind.  (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

Then Tsutsumi discovered bluegrass. 

The genre’s history in Japan dates at least as far back as the end of World War II, when a new generation of music fans heard what was then called hillbilly music through the Far East Network, a radio network run by the U.S. military.  

Bluegrass gained traction in the ‘70s, with Japan hosting its own jams, magazines and even a festival. Some Japanese fans began making pilgrimages to the Galax Fiddler’s Convention in the 1980s, according to Japanese music scholar Toru Mitsui.

Tsutsumi eventually gravitated to the more traditional genre of old time music. 

“The reason why I really fell in love with this music is that old time musicians in Japan are really, really friendly,” he said. 

Tsutsumi plunged into the community. He began obsessively listening to clips from old time greats that had been posted to YouTube, and imitating what he heard.

That approach served him well when he moved to North Carolina.

Dave Wood supervised Tsutsumi’s studies at Appalachian State University, where Tsutsumi was the first foreigner to graduate from the school’s Appalachian studies master’s program. Wood says Tsutsumi gravitated to people who shared his conservative vision of old time music.

“They'd say if you added this certain chord in a certain place in the tune, that's a hippy cord,” Wood said. “And the implication is like, yeah, it sounds good. And it feels good, but it's sinful, you know, you shouldn't give in to that pleasure.”

Tsutsumi at his farewell party in Crumpler, North Carolina
Tsutsumi at his farewell party in Crumpler, North Carolina (Photo courtesy of Mark Sanderford)

Tsutsumi moved out of the college town of Boone and into a cabin in Ashe County, North Carolina to get closer to the musicians he looked up to. There were some mishaps. His pipes froze and his kitchen flooded.

“I mean, none of this was very interesting to Shohei, these were just annoyances," Wood said. "And what he was really about was music, music, music, music, music, at all costs.”

Fiddler Kilby Spencer met Tsutsumi at local jam sessions. He says Tsutsumi could hold his own with the region’s best musicians.

“Everybody that met him liked him,” Spencer said. “Even if sometimes he probably couldn't understand their accents and they couldn't understand his. They all bonded, musically speaking.” 

Old time music grew out of tunes played by Scotch-Irish settlers, enslaved African Americans and others. Tsutsumi has researched how minorities’ contributions have often been overlooked. He knows not everyone feels as welcome as he does. 

“You have to think about that maybe like, do we really include everyone?” Tsutsumi said. 

Tsutsumi alongside musician Randy Johnson
Tsutsumi alongside musician Randy Johnson. Tsutsumi was a regular at jam sessions near his home in Ashe County, North Carolina, in a region known for a rich tradition of Appalachian music. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

But Tsutsumi’s experience in the U.S. has given him hope that cultures can consciously become more inclusive. And he thinks music has a role to play in that.

“Music exists for people, the community, you know?” Tsutsumi said. 

This was Tsutsumi’s last Galax Fiddler’s Convention for awhile. Last month, he returned to Japan, taking his second-in-a-row first place prize in dulcimer with him. 

Tsutsumi wants to teach Appalachian Music back home. Japan has its own history of exclusion, and Tsutsumi thinks the music could open up a new register of conversation.