If all of the countries of the world can put away their petty differences every four years in order to play games with each other, why can’t they do it all the time?
Not the only dreamer? This ad, for John Lennon's Imagine, ran in the September 1971 issue of Billboard.
I was lucky enough to be recording in London during the 2012 Olympics. Athletes, dignitaries, sports fans, nut jobs, opportunists, and tourists from nearly every country in the world joined together for the mostly peaceful competition. I'd worked here several times before, but this time London felt different. Pubs seemed happier. Tourist and locals greeted you on the street with a smile or “cheers," and excitement filled the air.
At the studio where we worked, a television suspended over the mixing board transmitted athletic events the entire time we recorded. During one of the sessions, Dave Stewart (Eurythmics, SuperHeavy) made an interesting observation. He essentially said, “If all of the countries of the world can put away their petty differences every four years in order to play games with each other, why can't they do it all the time?" The short answer: a combination of greed, fear, and ignorance prevents world peace, but Dave posed an interesting question.
The fierce competition inherent in athletics makes it seem unlikely to inspire peace. Watch boxing, wrestling, judo, or a javelin thrower and it's not hard to see how these sports link to ancient warfare. But the Olympics work. Athletes from countries that have hated each other for decades, if not centuries, ardently compete and then embrace with a smile once the game finishes. It's kind of a beautiful, cleansing therapy to share something that intense with another human. It helps the participants feel connected and realize we aren't all that different. If this works, how about some sort of international music armistice? I realize this sounds like the cannabis-fueled ramblings of a tree-hugging hippie, but honestly, world peace through music strikes me as more likely than peace through men's water polo.
Which brings me to Charlie Nagatani.
When Charlie Nagatani of Kumamoto, Japan, isn't fronting his phenomenally tight country band, Charlie and the Cannon Balls, he's organizing two fabulous music festivals in Japan. Charlie's mission statement: “Global peace through country music."
Charlie learned this the hard way, as a consequence of war. When Charlie was a child, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing some of Charlie's family members and showering his home with fallout. Out of fear the Americans would attack again, Charlie carried a knife throughout his childhood.
But that all changed when Charlie turned 20 and a buddy took him to see a country band. The music took hold of Charlie. He quit college, joined a band called Speedy Kido & Hillbilly Jamboree and began touring U.S. military bases throughout Asia. Charlie, now 75, claims he's never been sick and hasn't skipped a day of music since 1956. In 1967 Charlie opened Good Time Charlie's, an honest-to-god honky-tonk hidden on one of the upper floors of an office building in Kumamoto. The first time I walked in the joint I felt like I had passed through a wormhole that transported me straight to a Montana saloon, circa 1978.
Charlie adorned every square inch of the tavern with music memorabilia: new and ancient signed photos of celebs, antique sheriff badges, six shooters, rocket-buster boots, 10-gallon hats, and Navajo beads— some of it valuable, some of it kitschy, all of it cool. Amazingly, all these keepsakes sit out in the open where patrons can pick them up and look them over. If this were a bar in the States, the no-goods would fill their pockets with Charlie's treasures and clean the place out in a week. Here, everybody leaves it alone for all to enjoy.
In an interview with Estella Pan in her Star Country webzine, Charlie says this about his club: “I really wanted to let Japanese people know how wonderful country music is, with its simplicity, sincerity, and sadness. I wanted to talk with my fans about the United States of America, especially how I met a lot of good-hearted servicemen. I'm very proud of my club, where all my beautiful memories are packed with country music."
In 1989, with the help of the lovely and talented Judy Seale, a top Nashville-based manager turned international festival coordinator, Charlie organized “Country Gold" and later, “Country Sunshine." These festivals bring big country acts—including Charlie Daniels, Toby Keith, and Brad Paisley—to Kumamoto twice a year. “I can't express how happy I've been listening to country music," Charlie says. “So if everyone would listen, we'd put an end to war."
There's always going to be some greedy thug attacking innocent victims. There's always going to be misunderstandings that escalate to international unrest. But what a beautiful thought to have the world join in a big ol' jam for peace. You might say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star, the 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.
John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger