Kazuhiro Inaba,
Teardrop on a Rose
(Copper Creek, 2003)

There are just some musical moments so right that your face lights up when you hear them. I experienced one of those when I heard the title track of Japanese bluegrass artist Kazuhiro Inaba's rendition of the Hank Williams classic, "Teardrop on a Rose." Inaba is not alone among Japanese speakers in having difficulty with the English "L" sound, and when he sings the first line, "While strollin' through a lovely garden," one's first response is to giggle, but Inaba's delivery is so sincere and heartfelt that you're unable to do more than smile at this singer/guitarist whose own country's musical culture is so different from the one that produced Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Don Reno, and others whose songs and tunes Inaba interprets.

We can hear American artists do this material over and over, but with Inaba we hear these songs as though for the first time, filtered through another language and culture, even though the songs are performed in English and with traditional accompaniment. The old chestnuts, "Are You Wastin' My Time," "A House of Gold" and even "Cold, Cold Heart" spring to new life the way Inaba does them. Take, for example, Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken," which Inaba starts hauntingly a cappella, slowly joined by bassist Bob Moore and then his own guitar; the instruments drop out, leaving Inaba alone for the vocal, followed by a short bass solo, and a collaboration between voice and bass, with the guitar coming in once again at the end. It's as simple as a Japanese woodcut and just as expressive.

The four other Hank Williams numbers are all equally eloquent, with Buddy Spicher's fiddle singing as smoothly as Inaba's voice on "Mansion on the Hill," the sole instrumental. Keith Little and Kathy Chiavola's harmony vocals blend perfectly with Inaba's lead, and Spicher and Moore provide the only other instruments. Sorry, no bluegrass banjo here, and it's just as well, since it would spoil the delicate balance that Inaba so successfully constructs with every song, and evinced so tellingly in the final song, "Danny Boy," one of the few times I've found this hoary old standard truly touching, with a straightforward fiddle solo and Inaba's sensitively picked guitar and tender vocal.

I hate to keep going back to Japanese cliches, but these 10 tracks have the simplicity and profundity of the best haiku. However, like haiku, one of the album's features is its brevity, clocking in at a very short 27:45 total. Since you'll probably want to play it again as soon as you hear it for the first time, you can legitimately double that time. This is an eye-opening album of great grace, a musical island of meditation conducted by a Zen master in a cowboy hat.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 4 October 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.