With all of the concern over the swell of violence against Asian Americans lately, the question has come up in certain circles, “Are there any Asian Americans making country music?” Well I’m glad you asked, and hell yeah there are. In fact 2020 was actually a banner year for Asian Americans contributing to country music, even if those contributions slid criminally under-the-radar.
The Asian connection in country music isn’t as unintiuitive as one may think. In fact, the influence of the East in country is quite fundamental. It’s been fashionable over the last few years to point out how the banjo was originally an African instrument as a way to illustrate the black influence in country. This is true, and an important fact to note and underscore, even if the lion’s share of other country music instruments such as the guitar, fiddle, bass fiddle, mandolin, and piano originate from Europe.
But Asians have a claim on country music as well, if you’re looking at it from an instrumental perspective. Hawaii and Polynesia is where the lap steel, and later the resonator and pedal steel guitar emerged from, and what is more indicative of country music than the twang of the steel guitar?
The guitar was first introduced to Hawaii and the Pacific region in the late 1800’s by Mexican vaqueros. Locals took a strange approach to the six-stringed instrument by turning it sideways, allowing for unique sounds, playing techniques, and tunings.
One problem though was while sitting on someone’s lap, the instrument wouldn’t project its sound like others, and would get drowned out in a live performance. So the resonator was invented, and eventually electric pickups and amplifiers to enhance the sound of these unique instruments that could emulate the bends and moans of a hillbilly singer, or the pining of a broken or lonesome heart. Amplifying the lap steel was also the official dawn of the electric guitar.
In 1924, a cowboy movie star named Hoot Gibson convinced lap steel maestro Sol Hoʻopiʻi to migrate from Hawaii to Los Angeles, where Hoʻopiʻi started playing for country and Western outfits. In 1927, the early country duo Darby and Tarleton recorded two songs—“Birmingham Jail” and “Columbus Stockade Blues”—that helped popularize the steel guitar sound. This same year The Dopyera Brothers invented and patented the resonator to help project the horizontal guitar’s sound in the acoustic realm.
Then in 1930, the Father of Country Music himself, Jimmie Rodgers, recorded a steel guitar song called “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues.” The steel guitar sound that’s so integral to country music was officially forged, only to be reinforced over time during World War 2 when American GI’s were stationed throughout the East, including in Hawaii, Okinawa, mainland China, and later occupied Japan. Along with picking up the appeal of the steel guitar in Asia, GI’s would leave the appeal for country music behind them all across post World War 2 Asia.
The popularity of country music in places like Japan, The Philippines, Malaysia, and other ports of call might surprise a lot of folks, and probably deserves its own deeper study at some point. But rest assured, there is a small, but serious appeal for country music all across Asia.
Charlie Nagatani from Kumamoto, Japan is a well-known country artist who is not only popular in Japan, but has regularly made appearances in North America over the years, and specifically been embraced by the Grand Ole Opry as a country music ambassador in the East. Nagatani made first appearance on the Opry in 1985, and has appeared regularly since then. In 1989, he founded the festival Country Gold, which now regularly draws some 30,000 fans, and invites bigger names from the United States to appear along with Japanese country artists. There’s a very intriguing documentary from 2019 on Charlie Nagatani called Far Western, which goes in-depth about the appeal of country music in Japan.
Tomi Fujiyama is another pioneer of country music in Japan, and she has also traveled to the states numerous times to perform, including making appearances on Music City Roots, and singing classic country songs in her native tongue. She also has a documentary on her live called Made in Japan from 2015.
Malaysia also has a strong country music scene, with one band called Os Pombos having been around for some 40 years, and multiple country music festivals are held annually in the nation. Os Pombos is known as the “Alabama of Malaysia.” But perhaps the best illustration of how popular country music is in the Malaysian region is the proliferation of the Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurants throughout the area. Long defunct here in the United States, the chicken franchise is going strong in South Asia with some 74 locations in Malaysia at last count, and another eight in Indonesia. No kidding.
Okay, but what about Asian Americans living in the United States and making country music in the present tense? As can be expected, the instances are pretty few and far between. Though some may use this to portend some sort of systemic racism against Asians (as they do for all non-white races), it’s more likely tied to cultural preferences that put many Asian Americans on the outside looking into the appeal of country music. But that is changing, and in a big way thanks to the work of some excellent and talented Asian Americans in the country space.
It’s worth pointing out that Neal McCoy who is originally from Texas is half Filipino. Having minted two #1 songs and eight Top 10’s during his biggest commercial run in the mid 90’s, McCoy helped break down barriers that may have been present for Asian Americans in country music.
It’s always risky business listing off country music contributors of a given set, because you’re always going to forget or overlook somebody, even though that’s not your intent. It’s just so many of these artists slide under-the-radar. But Richard Chon, who is a Korean-American originally from Buffalo, NY, moved to Bakersfield, California to be a newspaper reporter, and the classically-trained violinist soon because a fiddler with a Western Swing flavor. Jonboy McCollum of the Seattle-based band The Prairie Fire is also of Asian descent. There is also an Asian American country music critic and journalist on YouTube named Christine, who has a channel called The Backroad.
But the guy that has really been setting the country music world on fire over the last couple of years and breaking down stereotypes for country Asian performers has been songwriter and honky tonker Gabe Lee. Considered by many as a serious contender for one of the best songwriters in all of country music at the moment, his more acoustic 2019 album Farmland, and 2020’s more electric album Honky Tonk Hell have been the talk of independent country circles, and have most anyone who’s given him a listen singing his praises.
What’s even more cool about the Gabe Lee story is he’s a native of Nashville. So even though he’s of Asian heritage, he has just as much a claim on country music as anyone. But Gable Lee is also illustrating how country music is for everyone, and anyone has the right and opportunity to perform it—if you’re good, and if you’re country, of which Gabe Lee is both.
But perhaps the greatest illustration of the Asian American experience in country music in modern history was a feature film just released in 2020 called Yellow Rose. You wouldn’t think there was a movie centered around country music and the hot button issue of immigration that played in over 800 movie theaters with the lack of attention paid to the film by country and entertainment media, and that among other blessings, included an Oscar-level performance from an incredible young Asian actor in Eva Nobelzada who can also sing and compose music better than most mainstream country stars at the moment. But you would be wrong.
Yellow Rose was first announced in 2014 with Dale Watson as the star figure, whose story line was to be centered around a young Filipino girl named Rose Garcia who was teased in her small town as the racially-tinged “Yellow Rose” for her love for traditional country music. Written and directed by noted filmmaker Diane Paragas who is also of Filipino descent and grew up in a small Texas town herself, the movie was art imitating life in many ways.
Yellow Rose follows Rose Garcia as she takes her feelings of forlornness and not fitting in, and puts them into country songs. One evening when sneaking into the famous Broken Spoke honky tonk in Austin, Texas, Rose makes the acquaintance of Dale Watson, who eventually takes her under his wing as a promising songwriter and performer. The film also includes an excellent soundtrack.
If this film had been picked up by Sony Pictures and received a wide release in 2018, it might have been the talk of the media, and country music. Instead, it’s immigration story got buried by COVID-19 and the hot button of Black Lives Matter, and went virtually ignored, despite the wide release. But regardless of it’s commercial impact, Yellow Rose is a great film that received worthy-critical acclaim by those who sought it out. And most importantly, it’s a great illustration of how country music is for everyone. Because ultimately we all hurt, and in ways that country music is a unique panacea for, no matter our color of skin, or country of origin.
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One of the frustrating things about all of the coverage on race and country music recently is just how performative it all feels, and how it’s more about positioning and signaling by the authors and publishers as opposed to trying to offer subsnative support of minority performers in the country genre. Frankly, it’s easy compose to some platitude about how country music needs to be more diverse and post it to social media, or make some sensational story about how some artist got cast aside by Music Row when that happens to performers by the hundreds every week regardless of race.
What’s harder, and arguably more important, is digging deeper than major label rosters or worrying about the dying medium of mainstream radio, and finding the art being made by minorities in country, and helping to shine a bigger spotlight on it, and tell the story behind it, and doing it because the art has value in itself, regardless of the ethnicity of the artist. Such efforts may not receive the retweets and clicks. But it might be the spark that helps raise awareness of an artist, or launch a career.
Because of all the adversities and roadblocks one may face in regards to sex, race, sexual orientation, or anything else when trying to make country music for a living, the biggest adversity of them all might be having the audacity to make actual country music. Nothing is more discriminated against in mainstream country than that. But these artists soldier forward anyway, because it’s the true expression of their hearts, no matter who they are, or where they’re from.