‘Far Western’ documents the surviving classic country tradition in Japan
The premise of “Far Western” is simple but strange: In Japan, a dedicated group of Japanese musicians, fans, and venue owners are keeping traditional bluegrass and country music alive. After nearly a decade of work on his part, local James D. Payne’s character-driven documentary will screen Thursday, Oct. 4, at Circle Cinema. Payne answers a few questions about the film below.
Mason Whitehorn Powell: What was that deciding factor that made you say, “Yes, I’m going to do this”?
James Payne: I was fascinated in a historical sense. I was in this bar and I saw this photo of Leon Russell from the “Hank Wilson’s Back” albums, the early ‘70s country albums, and I was really intrigued by that. I grew up with Leon Russell music in the house, so when I started digging into that post-WWII story, I was fascinated with it as just a chapter of music history. And then as it grew, and I got to know some of the individuals, I was more interested in this cross-cultural exchange story. The way really diverse cultures seem to be transplanted into unlikely places.
Powell: Do you think this concept might appear strange to some Americans?
Payne: You mean, “Japanese playing Country and Western music?” Yeah, I mean that’s sort of the bait. People see it as incongruous, and maybe visually it’s funny or paradoxical or something, but I think once you get further into the film and you meet the characters, you realize that country music, or folk music—these sorts of hillbilly, pre-country music like bluegrass—they’re really relatively relatable forms of folk music that are about very relatable themes, and they’re sentimental. I think that every culture has some sort of sentimental bent, and that simple folk music spoke to Japanese.
Powell: Considering contemporary Japanese culture, would you consider the subjects of your documentary to be eccentric?
Payne: Yeah, definitely. It’s a tiny sliver of Japanese culture. They are eccentric. And these little [country] bars are very few and far between. The bluegrass scene in Japan has a little more footing because there are clubs associated with universities, and they still have 40–50 bluegrass festivals in Japan. But the sort of country and western scene is really small and fading. It really had its heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a popular form of music in Japan, and that has gone away.
Thurs., Oct. 4, 7 p.m.
Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave. | $9.50
Japanese country/western bands The Blueside of Lonesome and The Ozaki Brothers—all of whom appear in “Far Western” will perform at Fassler Hall following the screening.