Old-time fiddler follows his passion across decades and oceans

By Mary Glen Hatcher

The foreign fiddler

In the thick humidity of June, at a small-town North Carolina park, a few hundred locals gathered to celebrate the music of their mountains.

As the intercom static cleared, a voice announced the next competitor in the 54th Annual Mount Airy Blue Grass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention: a foreigner.

Shohei Tsutsumi from Osaka, Japan!

It was the 24-year-old’s first performance in America. He picked his favorite tune to play, a West Virginia reel called “Head of the Creek,” so his hands wouldn’t shake. Onstage, his mind raced.

He started thinking about his day: the generosity of strangers at the park who opened their campsites and coolers to him; the musicians who shared their songs and tunes; the Blue Ridge Mountains that called him away from home to join the chorus of Appalachia’s old-time music.

He picked up his fiddle, and paused.

The father-daughter duo that performed before him would go on to claim the convention’s grand prize.

But he’d already won.

Disney and Davy Crockett

Shohei Tsutsumi lived for the weekends he spent with his grandparents in Osaka, gathered around his grandad’s cassette player.

The compilation of Disney movie soundtracks was a family favorite. Tsutsumi would serenade his three sisters with whimsical songs from Snow White and Pinocchio, but one tune never left his mind: The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

“Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!”

“I’m the only one from my family that really remembers that song, and can still remember the harmony and melody exactly how it goes,” Tsutsumi said, humming the cheerful refrain.

This was his first taste of a genre he’d spend the rest of his youth searching for, and the rest of his life trying to comprehend.

Playing it by ear

It was high school before Tsutsumi picked up an instrument. He wanted to learn piano when he was younger, like his sisters had, but his grandmother forbade it. It was a girl’s instrument, she said.

But he found his rhythm playing the guitar. Without formal lessons or instruction, he plunged into Japan’s rich musical subcultures: heavy metal, hard rock, Bosa Nova, Bollywood, and eventually, bluegrass and country.

He trained his ear to play by sound, replaying his favorite recordings until they echoed in his thoughts, and picked up a few other instruments — mandolin, fiddle, banjo and dulcimer — along the way.

“He’s such a quick study, musically, and learns how to play an instrument really, really quick,” Joe Thrift, an old-time musician from Surry County who played with Tsutsumi, said.

After settling into Japan’s bluegrass community, Tsutsumi felt like he’d finally found his niche. But his undergraduate program in Kyoto was coming to an end, and he needed to figure out his next steps. So, he did what he usually did when he needed space to think — he went to a jam session.

The beard behind the band

And there, he met Bosco.

With a handlebar moustache and a long, braided beard, Tsutsumi thought the fiddle player looked “very much like a foreigner,” in his native Kyoto because of the odd way he held his fiddle on his chest instead of under his chin.

In the late 1970s, Bosco Takaki traveled down South to learn deep-holler fiddle and banjo music from Appalachian legends Tommy Jarrell and the Hammond Family. He brought these lessons back to Japan, enchanting audiences with his eccentric fiddle playing.

For Tsutsumi, this introduction to old-time was eye-opening.

Bosco’s playing exposed an opportunity to sculpt his music obsession into more than a hobby. He became fascinated with the music’s roots, history and culture. He wanted to trace it, study it, master it.

“For the first time, I saw this contrast between old-time music and bluegrass, and it really took me,” Tsutsumi said. “I tried a lot of things, but it was this American folk music that took me. It grabbed me by my heart, actually.”

Bosco knew the feeling. His ensuing mentorship and friendship with Tsutsumi reminds him of falling in love with old-time traditions at the same age, 40 years ago.

A place for modern pilgrims 

Five years and two graduate programs later, Tsutsumi’s passion for old-time brought him to the foothills of North Carolina.

He’s the latest in a succession of musicians from around the world who, mesmerized by the music and traditions of Appalachia, have made a pilgrimage to this corner of the state to understand it.

After earning his Masters in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University in 2018 — the first non-American to do so in the program’s 45-year history — he moved with a friend to the quiet mountain town of West Jefferson and embedded himself in the old-time community.

He played at the community center’s Thursday night jam sessions, began taking a violin-making course under local old-time musician, Joe Thrift, and started teaching beginning banjo and fiddle at the local community college.

An outsider only on the outside

As one of the only Japanese people in the area, Tsutsumi said he’s lived a unique juxtaposition as a visible “outsider” researching and mastering an intimate part of the region’s culture.

“I’m in this place I’ve kind of dreamed of for a while, surrounded by people who are able to teach me about their local music and traditions, yet almost nobody who sees me on the street ever imagines that I am actually really good at playing music from this area, you know?” he said, laughing.

But, as his fellow musicians and the blue ribbons from local conventions will tell you, his talent speaks for itself. After a two-year hiatus from the dulcimer, Tsutsumi began practicing the instrument again for fun, and decided to enter a competition in Galax, Virginia to test his skills.

He walked away with first place after only a few days of practicing.

“I hope to go to the fiddler’s conventions to compete for personal growth,” he said “but also so I can get as many ribbons as I can before I go back to Japan.”

A link to the past 

Kilby Spencer, a fiddler with White Top Mountain Band who plays with Tsutsumi, noted that more than Tsutsumi’s meticulous style shines through when he performs.

“There’s a lot more to the music than just the notes,” Spencer said. “I think what makes him so special is he’s got a good grasp on and appreciation for the people behind the music.”

And that’s exactly what Tsutsumi wants his music to show.

As a self-proclaimed “ultra-traditionalist” in the old-time world, he strives to imitate the style of the legends he listened to and learned from — Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed and Fred Cockeram — so that their contributions are never forgotten.

So that others can find themselves in the music, just as he did.

“If someone mentions I sound like Tommy Jarrell, or I remind them of their grandpa or friend, that’s a huge compliment because they are not just listening to one person, not just to me, but many,” Tsutsumi said.

“If I can allow others to listen with their own memories and emotions, to go back to a time or place before, where I don’t belong to really, but I’m kind of part of…yeah, that would kind of be enough.”

Edited by Molly Sprecher