SAN FRANCISCO – You can expect to see most anything at stylized Mission District dive bars, known for their high quirk quotient. Habitués cultivate aggressive nonchalance and need something truly unusual, just short of cattle-prod shocking, to get them to look up from their PBRs and pay attention.
How about this: a 62-year-old Japanese man, barely 5-foot-4 and carrying a guitar that seems to weigh down his slender frame, walking onto a makeshift stage wearing a straw cowboy hat, red plaid shirt and wire-rimmed granny glasses, warbling old-timey Jimmie Rodgers songs, yodel and all?
Yes, that will do it.
A crowd of about 30 – which also seemed about the average age – at the Rite Spot, a red-walled watering hole at 17th and Folsom, was entranced, totally captivated, on a recent Tuesday night by the song stylings of one Toshio Hirano, the least likely country singer you could imagine.
For the better part of an hour, Hirano, backed by stand-up bass sideman Kenan O'Brien, dipped deep into the Rodgers songbook, extracting gems that were popular in the late '20s and early '30s when most of this crowd's grandparents were young and no doubt affecting hipster attitudes (unless they were standing in bread lines).
Hirano's voice, an alluring mix of his clipped Japanese accent and affected Southern twang, rose and fell, dipped and quavered and, at the songs' finales, erupted into high-pitch yodeling that would prick dogs' ears several blocks away.
He sang about the romance of the prairie, roaming the range with guns hanging proud, riding the rails, losing it all in a gambler's hall, winning the hearts of rodeo sweethearts, putting in hard time in the Appalachia coal mines and, most of all, expressing the ethos of the high lonesome life.
That such a polished, yet heartfelt, performance comes from an unassuming man who emigrated to the United States in the mid-'70s could be dismissed as mere gimmickry, something the Coen brothers might dream up for a movie. Likewise, the crowd's appreciation could be perceived as being steeped in too-cool irony.
But it's not. There's no rule, after all, saying you have to be American to sing Americana. And Hirano is as earnest as they come, a true Rodgers disciple and bluegrass aficionado, and the audience responds in kind. People seem as enamored with Hirano's between-song patter about the Cowboy Way as they are about his yodeling.
"I don't think it's ironic at all," said fan Eric Suesz, sitting at a table in the back with two buddies. "Some might think it's ironic because he's Japanese and doing roots music. But it's genuine. He has a genuine love for Jimmie Rodgers and songs from the '30s. I've seen him many times."
Word has gotten out, clearly. Hirano does monthly gigs at Amnesia, a trendy Mission nightclub on Valencia Street, and at the Rite Spot, as well as occasional sets at the Lucky Horseshoe in Bernal Heights.
This night, the Rite Spot was dotted with uninitiated Hirano listeners, including young couple Kate Goldstein and Conor Doyle.
"This is our first time," Goldstein said. "Somebody told me he's a Japanese Jimmie Rodgers. That sounds pretty awesome. It's what got us out on a Tuesday night."
What young 'uns may not know is Hirano's backstory.
It's a doozy: how he first put a needle to vinyl on an album called "The Best of Legendary Jimmie Rodgers" as a Weseda University student in Tokyo in 1968 and how it changed his life; how he finagled a four-month tourist visa in the mid-'70s into a full-fledged green card; how he later made pilgrimages to Nashville and Austin, Texas, to scare up a few gigs, opening for Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earl Keen; how he gave it all up in the late '80s when he married, moved to San Francisco and became a father; how he rediscovered his yen for performing Rodgers' songs in the mid-2000s and hit Bay Area stages once more.
Hirano, who works days as a teaching assistant in San Mateo, spins out his tale in rapid-fire fits and starts, skipping decades and then circling back. But when asked how he was introduced to Rodgers' music at a time when other college students in Tokyo were grooving to the Stones and Beatles and musing over Bob Dylan, Hirano slows down and speaks in reverential tones. Notice, too, how he always refers to Rodgers by his full name, a sign of respect, perhaps.
"When I listened to that first song, 'Peach Pickin' Time Down in Georgia,' that blew my brain off," he said. "That first line, with that voice and melody and everything, that became everything to me. I had been listening to Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, but this took me to another space.
"Oh, and then, the yodeling comes along at the (song's) end and that added another dimension. That blew my brain, too. The only yodeling I had heard was the original Swiss Alpine yodeling, that high-pitched beautiful, clean-cut sound. But Jimmie Rodgers' yodeling has has a dusty, creaky, muddy element. Wow."
The sound is what hooked Hirano but, as a child, he had been intrigued by cowboys he had seen while watching American Westerns in Tokyo movie theaters.
"I wanted to become Shane," he said. "I said, 'When I come to America, I can put on that costume.' "
When Hirano finally did come to America, he spent a month on a Greyhound bus touring southern Appalachia, and two more months bicycling through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"I was expecting to run into a lot of people who knew Jimmie Rodgers," he said. "I didn't find too many. I was disappointed, to be honest. Depressed. Then I thought, 'OK, I'll play Jimmie Rodgers' music. That's good enough.' "
Hirano has no delusions of stardom. He's played at San Francisco's annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and clubs such as Odeon and the Blue Lamp. But most gigs are intimate affairs at dives like the Rite Spot.
"The best thing," he said, "(is) I now meet young people who before didn't even know Hank Williams. I get to teach them about Jimmie Rodgers.
"After a (recent) show, a young man walks up to me and says, 'You sang something about trains. Who wrote that?' I tell him, 'Go to Amoeba Records. They have Jimmie Rodgers records.' The young man comes back a month later, and now he's a big Jimmie Rodgers fan. That makes me happy."
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Rite Spot Cafe, 2099 Folsom St. (at 17th Street), San Francisco
Information: (415) 522-6066 or ritespotcafe.net