Hooked on Bluegrass

Paul Sato



In the early 70’s, I was about 19 years old and working in a music store in Hawaii. Another guy that worked there that was from back east was talking to me about bluegrass, which was something I knew nothing about because I was born and raised in Hawaii. He pulled out this album which was by the Country Gentlemen and said “You should listen to this; it’s really good!” I remember staring at that album cover like it was from another planet. It was very unusual. I remember being curious, and kind of terrified at the same time. I bought the album on his recommendation and listened to it.

I don’t know what causes people to relate to something they have not been born into or immersed in, but that album really spoke to me and made an everlasting impression. Ever since then it has been an on- going journey, and I have become more and more enthused about the music. Like being here at the Fathers Day Festival; I have been coming to Fathers Day for about seven years, and every year it just gets better and better.

In 1984, by a twist of fate, I was one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys for two days. An experience that I will never forget, and that remains so vivid in my memory it is as though it happened yesterday. The Bluegrass Boys had a trip to Japan that permitted them to make a stop in Hawaii. Kenny Baker had quit just a few days before they arrived in Japan. Tater Tate was playing bass, and so Monroe had Tater move over to fiddle, which meant they came to Hawaii without a bass.

They knew that I played bass, and The Bluegrass Boys road manager asked me if I would be kind enough to help out. I said yes, and certainly jumped at the opportunity. But after saying yes, I also realized what the obligation was, and I was nervous for the 48 hours leading up to the performance. I would ask for any information on a set list or song list. Wayne Lewis, who was the guitar player, would say things like “Ah, you know these songs better than I do …..” I really think he was just trying to make me feel comfortable. But every time he said that I would just get more on edge. I kept asking for some personal time, and Wayne said “Don’t worry about it…we’ll get to it….” Well, I think it was a couple of hours before the performance when I was handed a hand scribbled song list… and Wayne said “We might do these.” Then we just went over a few songs… Then I put on the suit… I put on the cowboy hat… and got on the stage with Bill!

The concert with Bill and the Blue Grass Boys was very successful; a packed house at the University of Hawaii. I was of course, very nervous, but settled-in to my bass playing duties with the first tune (My Sweet Blue Eyed Darlin’). However, anytime I would start to feel comfortable, all it took was for me to look up and see Monroe standing in front of me and I would silently freak-out.

At one point during the concert when the audience was really going wild, Monroe asked Blake Williams (on banjo) to hold the bass and told me to “come on up here” to the mic. I did so dutifully while breaking into a sweat…

Monroe asked me; “Son, what do you think of bluegrass music?” This is one of those defining moments where a person can be a hero or a goat (for life) depending on your reply. By a stroke of good fortune, I replied; “Bill, it’s the best music in the world, or why would all these people be here tonight?!” The audience cheered, Bill broke into a huge smile and shook my hand, and I stopped sweating…a little.

(posted 8/15/2009)


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