The Western Crooners bring honky-tone tunes from Japan to Memphis

The Western Crooners may not be the only traditional honky-tonk band from Japan made up of mostly sexagenarians, but they’re the only one that will be barnstorming America over the coming weeks.

The band’s lone American member, drummer David Jackson, and his longtime friend Dave Willis — creator of the beloved animated series “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and “Squidbillies” — are bringing the band to the United States for the first time. It promises to be a unique tour, one which will also be filmed by Willis for a documentary. For the band members themselves it will be a pilgrimage to the Mecca of the music they’ve long loved.

On Monday, the Western Crooners will visit Memphis for an early evening show at Murphy’s, along with local country combo Papa Top’s West Coast Turnaround.

It’s a twisting path that’s brought the Crooners to America. Jackson and Willis grew up in Conyers, Ga., playing in bands together. After college, the two pals bought a VW van, painted it up, and headed out West in a quest to make it to Alaska. They never did “but that was the beginning of my wandering years,” says Jackson.

While Willis began his career in animation, Jackson went back to school, studying linguistics with a focus on Japanese, at the University of Oregon.

“Being in the field of linguists and second language acquisition, the next move was to go somewhere overseas and teach English,” says Jackson. “I was offered a job in Japan. I jumped on it and came over. It was supposed to be a short contract just for the summer but I loved it so much over here, I stayed.”

Around 2001, a friend took Jackson to a club in downtown Tokyo. When he got there he was surprised to see a hard-core honky-tonk band on stage, called The Western Crooners, featuring all Japanese members. Jackson soon began to frequent the band’s shows, eventually getting up to guest sing a few songs. When the Crooners found out he played drums, he became a full-fledged member.

Led by singer Ken Kawagoe — and featuring pianist Candy Okada, bassist Ryuu Satoh, and pedal steel player The Mighty Ohba — the Crooners play classic country covers and a smattering of originals in the vein of Hank Williams, Snow and Thompson. Despite the fact that only one member of the band — pianist Okada — speaks any English it hasn’t kept the Western Crooners from capturing the essence of the music.

Kawagoe is a remarkably nuanced country singer (check the band’s rendition of Wynn Stewart’s “Playboy” on YouTube for proof). “Kawgoe-san is really a smart guy: he went to the MIT of Japan and was an engineer for a long time. He’s got lots of English knowledge in his brain but it doesn’t flow out so easily in conversation,” says Jackson. “Yet he has a real grasp of the lyrics, and you can tell in the way he delivers the songs.”

Over the years, the band has released a live CD and cut a version of the theme for Dave Willis’ “Squidbillies” program. But mostly they seemed content to play bars and festivals in Japan.

Last year, however, Kawagoe started to talk more ambitiously about playing outside of country, and trying to connect with country music’s roots in America.

“Kawagoe-san called a band meeting, which is rare,” recalls Jackson. “He said that he really wanted to try and go to the States for a tour. He mentioned age being a worry — he just turned 60 this past year, and our steel player is older than that, and has had some minor health problems. So I think it was a little bit of [a bucket list] situation.”

Jackson quickly called on his old friend Willis, who used his contacts to help organize a U.S. tour for the Crooners. As they began talking about the jaunt, the idea of a documentary popped in Jackson’s head.

He visualized something in the vein of “Genghis Blues,” the 1999 film about blind American singer Paul Pena’s journey to the isolated Asian nation of Tuva, to explore his interest in the traditional form of Tuvan throat singing. “The idea of people getting into the music of a foreign country and then going to that country and taking part in that musical culture is an intriguing concept,” says Jackson.

Willis immediately jumped on board with the project. “Doing a documentary about these guys who can’t speak English for the most part, but are drawn to this music sold me. Now they’re older men in their 60s, and they’re going to see this country and parts of the country that inspired this music for the first time in their lives. They’ll go all throughout Texas, and see Nashville and the Ryman Auditorium and places like that.”

As to the shape the film will take, Willis says “it’s probably the type of thing that reveals itself to you. The other interesting part to me is most of them all have day jobs or careers. One member decided to leave his job to do this tour. It’s the type of thing you do when you’re 19, but when you’re in your late 50s or early 60s it’s pretty charming to throw what you’re doing under the bus to go on this adventure.”

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