By ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH
Outside, a cold wind had delivered a blustery evening to the Mission District, covering Sutro Tower in a shroud of fog. Inside Amnesia Bar, however, the patrons lining the walls sipped their after-work beers in the dim red light, putting another Monday behind them. The front door opened and in walked a small man who shuffled across the bar to lie his guitar case down on the stage.
The man was Toshio Hirano, the Japanese-born country musician who plays for free once a month at Free Bluegrass Mondays at Amnesia.
Holding a old guitar—its paint chipped from strumming—and standing hunched over the microphone, Hirano opened with “Let Me Be Your Side Track,” his thin, warbly voice delivering Jimmie Rodgers’ lyrics and signature yodels with a Japanese accent.
After songs, he introduced and re-introduced himself with a line familiar to fans of country music.
“Hello, I’m Toshio Hirano.”
The crowd seemed to know. Entrance was free, but the tip jar started to be filled early as Hirano played the country classics with humility and obvious love and appreciation for those who created them. Music, beer and the friendly dog roaming the bar warmed those coming in from the cold, as Hirano thanked the audience and joked that the weather “works out great for me.”
Midway though Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” one member of the audience hopped on stage for an impromptu duet of bass tones to complement Hirano’s high-pitched voice.
The image of the Japanese man in a plaid shirt and thin red tie singing old Jimmie Rodgers tunes stretched the boundaries of the wondrous, even for a bar like Amnesia, which also hosts Baxtalo Drom—a Balkan, bhangra, Latin and gypsy punk dance party.
“I fell in love with that music when I was a young teenager in Japan,” Hirano, 58, said between the two sets of country covers he played. Each set spanned several decades of country and folk music, including more than a dozen songs by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jr. and Sr., and of course, Jimmie Rodgers.
“Jimmie Rodgers is my love,” Hirano said, referring to the musician known as “the singing brakeman” and “the father of country music.” Rodgers died in 1933 of tuberculosis at the age of 35.
A fixture of the local San Francisco music scene, Hirano’s love affair with country music has spanned more than 40 years. He doesn’t remember exactly, but first stumbled across the music “by accident,” as the genre only developed a very small subculture in Japan.
“I had to look for it,” he added.
Onstage, Hirano gave almost all of his songs an equal treatment, identifying the songs and breaking up the sets with onstage banter with the full bar crowd. He giggled as he asked the crowd to keep warm by drinking on a cold night.
“Everybody needs to get drunk … Willie Nelson knew how to get drunk very well,” he said before strumming the opening to Willie Nelson’s “I Gotta Get Drunk.”
The couple making out by the stage already found their own way to keep warm, but others occasionally got up and danced to the two-step rhythm.
Between his two sets, friends and fans came up to talk to Hirano, who also works in the San Mateo school district when he’s not covering country greats. One new fan thanked him with a half-pint of dark beer.
Listen to Toshio Hirano play “Peach Picking Time in Georgia,” or go hear him the last Saturday of every month at the Rite Spot, or once a month at Free Bluegrass Mondays at Amensia.
Click to view a gallery of photos from the show.
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