His name is Good Time Charlie
It’s fair to say that when he “started playing that country gold” more than 50 years ago, there was no country and western scene in Japan. What there is today is largely down to his tireless efforts, and those of his friends.
Charlie Nagatani and his family also run a ‘saloon’, Good Time Charlie, in Kumamoto city. When I spoke to him there recently, he was a busy man. But that’s his default setting – “He can’t stop,” his son told me, “He’s like one of those fish that has to keep swimming.” In between stints on stage, Charlie went around the tables chatting with every guest, many of whom are personal friends, all of whom are fans. And when not playing host, he was busily taking orders over the phone for tickets for ‘Country Gold‘ (more of which later).
I asked Charlie about how all this started.
“A friend of mine remembers when you used to play at the clubs on the US military bases when he was in the Army about 40 years ago, based at Brady Air Base, out in Saitozaki. When did you first get into C&W and how? When did you start playing C&W?”
Camp Brady reminds me of a good ol’ days and we used to go there often to perform at clubs way back in around 1968 as well as Itazuki Air Force Base, Sasebo Naval Station and Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station. Well, on my 20th birthday one of my friends who used to work at Camp Wood US Army Base in Kumamoto presented me a Happy Birthday present and that was a country & western band. I first listened it and felt something strong in my mind. Soon I dropped out of studing at University and decided to start a band to be a country music singer. It was 1956 and country music changed my whole life. I felt it has something different compared to other music ( simplicity / sincerity / sadness) and moreover I loved its melody and lyrics.
Every time I’ve been to the bar, Good Time Charlie, he’s been there and played a set.
“How long has GTC been open? Do you play every night that you can?”
I’ve been running Good Time Charlie for almost 33 years and playing 7 nights a week except New Year’s Eve and January 1st.
The interior of the saloon is a country fan’s dream. The place is plastered from floor to ceiling with memorabilia, from photos of country legends, to vintage posters advertising the likes of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn. A cabinet contains gifts and awards, including the prestigious Jim Reeves Memorial Award, which he was awarded by the Academy of Country Music in 2005, “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the acceptance of country music throughout the world”. In an alcove hang thank you notes from presidents of the United States, and certificates denoting Charlie’s honorary citizenship of 33 American states.
But there seems to be a close connection with the state of Montana. How did that come about?
Regarding Montana, Kumamoto is a sister state with Montana so most of the Governors who visited Kumamoto come to my club to enjoy our performance of country songs from old to new and I was given an honorary citizenship by former Governor Ted Schwinden.
“So why is C&W so popular in Kyushu? I don’t think the following is that big in Tokyo, but what is your sense about the popularity of C&W in other parts of Japan?”
The reason is there are lots of country music fans in Kyushu, I was born and raised up here in Kumamoto and I really love my home town, so I wanted to remain local to spread it out to all over but it was so hard to keep it and very hard to let them know how wonderful the music is, although I know it’s easy to do it in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. It took a long time to make country music fans around me but I always believe that country music is the best music in the world. Many American friends wonder about me because I was born in Japan and they all ask me why I love their country’s music culture so deeply more than anybody else in USA.
Country Gold is an open-air festival held every October against the stunning backdrop of Mount Aso, attended by up to 20,000 fans, and to which Charlie has attracted some of the biggest country and western stars. This year the festival (Sun. Oct 19) celebrates its 20th anniversary.
“How did Country Gold start? Was it planned or did it just sort of happen? Were you determined then to see it grow into the international occasion that it is today?”
When Former Prime Minister Hosokawa (he was our Governor before he became Prime Minister) built the world biggest out door stage at the foot of Mt. Aso called ASPECTA, he consulted me about doing a country music show there. I sent a letter to the CMA (Country Music Association in Nashville) saying that I’d like to open a country music festival in Japan so will you please introduce anyone who can help me plan it. Then I received a few letters from agents and I picked up one of them and started it and that was 1989 so this year will be 20th Anniversary! I can’t believe it. I thank Judy Seale who I picked up that first year and still she is working with me (20 great years and we are both getting old…). I’ve met many, many wonderful people through this great music in Japan and the States and it’s a treasure which money can’t buy.