Though he has never been heard on the radio or produced a recording that was widely sold beyond his own appearances, Japanese-born fiddler Shoji Tabuchi ranks by some measures as among the most popular musicians in the United States. He employs over 200 people at his theater in Branson, Missouri, where he performs two shows a day for much of the year, often selling out all 2,000 seats. Tabuchi's show in Branson regales busloads of visitors with elaborate dance routines, a range of musical genres, and plenty of Vegas-style glitz, but his path to wealth and fame started with pure enthusiasm for American country music.
Tabuchi has never been willing to discuss his age, but he was a sophomore in college when he heard a concert in Osaka, Japan, by Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys in the mid-1960s, and he is thought to have been born in Daishoji, in Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture, around 1944. His father was a business executive, and Tabuchi majored in economics at St. Andrew's College, planning to move on to a management career. As a child, he had studied classical violin in Japan, often annoying teachers with his habit of improvising variations on the pieces he was assigned to learn. Hearing Acuff's fiddler Howdy Forrester play the nineteenth-century showpiece "Listen to the Mockingbird" quickly brought about a change in Tabuchi's musical direction. "I got sidetracked," he told Tom Uhlenbrock of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I heard country music and bluegrass music and fell in love." The love affair was sealed when Acuff, as country stars often do, told him to stop by if he ever came to Nashville.
Forming a band called the Bluegrass Ramblers, which won a nationwide competition in Japan, Tabuchi decided that he had to come to the United States to realize his dreams of becoming a star country performer. In 1967, just shy of receiving his college degree, Tabuchi headed for San Francisco with $600 in his pocket. Speaking English poorly and fazed at first by the city's hippie scene, he and a friend formed a band called the Osaka Okies and managed to land gigs at several top Bay Area clubs. That was the beginning of what Tabuchi described to the Wall Street Journal's Ellen Graham as "20 years of overnight success." A patron at a financial-district restaurant where Tabuchi played for tips became his first wife, Mary Jo, in 1968, and he became an American citizen. The pair moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and Tabuchi began performing at the Starlite Club in nearby Riverside. In 1974 the couple had a son, Shoji John Tabuchi.
When Tabuchi visited Nashville, Acuff was true to his word and arranged an appearance for the young Japanese fiddler on the venerable Grand Ole Opry radio variety show. Tabuchi's unusual-for-country-music ethnicity, he felt, actually worked to his advantage. "Say person A and person B play just as good," he told an interviewer from the Goldsea Asian American Profiles website. "Who stands out, me or him?" Tabuchi got another break in 1970 when he came under the wing of legendary country promoter Tillman Franks, who signed him as an opening tour act for star vocalist David Houston. On the road with Houston for five years, Tabuchi learned the nuts and bolts of American country music showmanship.
In 1975 Tabuchi left Houston to set out as a headliner on his own, singing and playing the fiddle. He had gained popularity through his tours with Houston, playing dates with top stars like Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash, and he had no trouble lining up performing opportunities around Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Tabuchi's marriage, however, broke up under the pressure of his constant touring. When he was offered a six-month slot at Branson's Starlite Theater in 1980, the stability sounded good to him. At the time, Branson was in the first stages of rapid growth as a Middle American entertainment mecca, and it seemed to offer Tabuchi new possibilities in another area as well; he met his second wife, Dorothy, after she attended several of his shows. His original contact in Branson was a Japanese-born banjo player named Mike Ito, whom he had met years before in Nashville. Ito performed with a bluegrass band called the Baldknobbers, the group that had kicked off the entire Branson entertainment phenomenon.
Tabuchi's popularity in Branson steadily increased, and in 1985 he was signed to a three-year contact at Branson's Country Music World, formerly the Hee Haw Theater. While he was there, Dorothy Tabuchi volunteered to produce a segment of a show mounted to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Tabuchi discovered his wife's logistical and choreographic skills. After 1990, when the 2,000-seat Shoji Tabuchi Theater opened, Dorothy Tabuchi became a full creative and entrepreneurial partner in her husband's career, devising dance routines and often making business decisions. Her daughter Christina also performed a tap-dancing segment included in Tabuchi's stage show; by 1999 she was a featured performer who made 18 costume changes over the course of an evening.
It was Dorothy Tabuchi who created much of the spectacle that greeted busloads of visitors to Branson when they stopped at the Shoji Tabuchi Theater. Red carpets were unrolled to provide a distinguished path from bus door to theater entryway. And the theater's restrooms formed a tourist attraction all by themselves, with crystal chandeliers, hand lotion-wielding attendants, and fresh orchids in the ladies' room, while men could enjoy a round of billiards or just sit by a roaring fire.
The star of the show, however, was Shoji Tabuchi himself. Though he still spoke English awkwardly after several decades in the U.S., that was part of his appeal, as he dished out down-home humor. He credited his mother for motivating him to learn the violin; she would chase him down when it was time for him to practice, and, he said, she got to be very good at climbing trees. Musically, Tabuchi ranged far beyond country-related genres; backed by a 14-piece band, he created a variety show that incorporated swing, Cajun, polka, gospel, rock, Hawaiian music, patriotic music, and even rap. One of the centerpieces of Tabuchi's show was a rendition of "Music of the Night" from the Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera.
After the show Tabuchi made a point of personally greeting tour bus occupants. Personal contact with audiences built repeat business for his shows, and even World War II veterans were snared by his rags-to-riches story. "At first I wasn't too hot on going to a theater owned by a Japanese person," veteran Jack Surles, a member of a group that held reunions in Branson, told Graham. "Most of the men had mixed feelings. ... But what Shoji has done, he has helped us heal---we're all crazy about him. He came here with nothing and made something of himself." Tabuchi's appearances weren't restricted to Branson; he made successful concert appearances in St. Louis and other cities. He appeared several times on national television on such shows as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Today, and Inside Edition.
Although he had maintained little contact with Japanese culture over the years, Tabuchi incorporated a segment featuring a one-ton Japanese taiko drum into his show in the early 2000s. Not resting on his laurels even after having developed one of American entertainment's most successful enterprises, he looked toward developing a Las Vegas version of his show, or even to returning one day to perform in his homeland. "I'd like to take the show to Japan---that is one of my dreams," he told Uhlenbrock. "But Japan's economy would have to turn around first."