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There are two types of trouble country singers tend to get into in song: either they lose their heart, or they lose their job. That's how 58-year-old Japanese singer and guitarist Toshio Hirano explained the range in his repertoire last Monday night at Amnesia during his set of old-timey country covers.
Indeed, broken hearts and unemployment lines were popular topics at the candlelit dive in more ways than one that evening. At the back of the bar, two friends discussed a dirty dog who'd dumped a woman via text message as she BARTed home from a one-night stand. A couple of stools over, three college graduates parsed the difficult prospects for getting jobs in a recession. Up by the red stage curtains, Hirano gave his audience a historical and musical context for their woes. With an acoustic guitar slung over his teacherly plaid shirt and dark tie, the Noe Valley local was trilling Hank Williams' classic plea, "Take these chains from my heart and set me free/You've grown cold and no longer care for me." Getting dissed comes across so much better in country music than it ever will in a text message.
Despite his explanation, Hirano wasn't solely focused on lettin' go and gettin' let go. His versions of songs by Williams, Ernest Tubb, Buck Owens, and his personal favorite, Jimmie Rodgers (whom he praised repeatedly), were largely relatable, no matter the subject. He strummed the old plague ditty "T.B. Blues" during a week of renewed swine flu fears. He also played a Rodgers booze ballad, which Hirano introduced by ribbing his audience. "The next song is appropriate for anyone having their first drink of the day," the singer announced with a shy smile and a heavy Japanese accent. "So try to pretend this is your first drink of the day." The crowd around him hooted, lifting the Bud Lights and mimosas (go figure) in their grip.
Hirano is a time- and continent-jumping troubadour. He grew up in Tokyo, coming of age when the American folk revival was also hitting Japan. But a chance listen to a Sunday afternoon radio program introduced him to the sound of southern Appalachia. Soon after, he got his first bluegrass album by the Country Gentlemen.
"It broke my head when I took that LP home for the first time," he recalls. When a friend brought Hirano a copy of a record by the "father of country music," Jimmie Rodgers, "his sound blew my head off in a bigger way than when I listened to bluegrass." He had no choice but to snake his older brother's guitar and learn how to play — and how to yodel — just like ol' Jimmie.
Fast-forward through moves to Nashville and Austin, to marrying an American woman and starting a family, and Hirano is now a popular proselytizer of country legends at Amnesia and the Rite Spot. He has held monthly gigs at both places for the past couple of years, and is guaranteed a good "two dozen people in the front" every time he plays, he says proudly.
Hirano is a poorly kept secret who nonetheless provokes the protective nature of his followers. The night I was at Amnesia, one young fan showed concern that I would increase Hirano's exposure, shaking his head and saying, "But he's our local treasure."
This treasure is a real charmer onstage. Close your eyes and the man who spends his days as a teaching assistant for a San Mateo ESL program disappears, replaced by a cowboy who may as well be crooning the blues down in Nashville. It isn't just his pitch-perfect quiver that earns Hirano such loyalty. It's also the self-effacing banter he rambles between songs. As the bartender turned up the volume last Monday, Hirano quipped he hoped the crowd wouldn't respond by demanding, "Move that microphone away from his mouth."
Hirano had plenty of PG punchlines, but occasionally he pushed for PG-13. Pointing to his tip jar, he introduced a "member" of his band you could see only by moving closer to the stage. "Come up front and touch my member," he teased, poorly feigning ignorance of the double entendre.
Even as Hirano rattled off a myriad of country miseries, the mood in the bar stayed light. Couples took to the dancefloor for the "happiest you'll sound in country music," Buck Owens' "My Heart Skips a Beat." Later, Hirano honored a request for the one original song in his setlist, "Honey-Dipped Baby." It's the story of a nice doughnut he discovered at an Austin Dunkin' Donuts. "It was a happier time with doughnuts," he told the Amnesia crowd. "Doughnuts always give me hope."
By the time Hirano had finished that sugary love song, the heartbreak texter's buddies had long ago left the bar, as had most of the crowd. Monday is free country and bluegrass night at Amnesia, and attendance seems to ebb and flow depending on the hour, peaking around the close of the first of Hirano's two sets.
A packed house is a double-edged sword, though, as not everyone who wanders in from Valencia is there for the show. At times, the loud bar chatter dwarfed Hirano's delicate acoustic tunes, making it hard to stay focused on his performance. The situation sets up a challenge the entertainer cheerfully embraces. "If people don't want to listen, they don't have to," he says. "Who cares about Toshio?"
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