Music has provided Japanese native Leona Mathes with a universe of connections.
One of the most important connections has been with her husband, Carter County native J.P. Mathes. She met J.P. while he was visiting Japan on tour during the summer of 2005.
They describe themselves as music educators who still like and need to perform.
They’ve even worked out a way to share top billing. They perform under the names J.P. Mathes and Mountain Empire or Leona Mathes and Mountain Empire. The decision on whose name is included in the billing depends on which of them books the show.
Usually performing with them are their three main musical friends, bassist David Babb, mandolin player Aaron Jackson and guitarist John Suits.
Leona started taking classical violin lessons at age four and studied for 16 years before she also became enamored of the fiddle.
Her father is a county-style musician in Japan.
“He knows a lot of the American roots music,” Leona said. “So, I grew up around it and got interested in country and bluegrass.”
Her first experience with performing bluegrass music came during a trip to Nashville to attend a week-long fiddle camp.
“After that, I wanted to learn bluegrass in Japan,” she said. “But it’s tough to find a fiddle teacher in Japan.”
On the advice of some musical friends, she decided to attend the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Program. “I got to go to college and learn bluegrass at the same time,” she said.
She also got closer to J.P., who was working at the time as the graduate assistant with the ETSU Bluegrass Program. They are both alumni of the ETSU Bluegrass Band.
Leona is currently a teacher at Trinity Arts Center in Johnson City. She teaches classical violin, fiddle and classical string ensemble.
Her students range in age from five to 60. “Some already have some experience,” Leona noted.
Her husband has taught for the past four years at Hazard Community and Technical College in Hazard, Ky. He is an assistant professor and ensembles director with the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music.
The couple left last week for a three-week tour of Japan. It’s their second trip to Japan together, but represents the 12th time J.P. has visited Japan.
“It’s a combination of concerts and educational workshops,” J.P. noted.
Leona organized the tour and scheduled the stops. “We will visit seven different cities,” she said.
The couple recently contributed a track titled “Johnson City: Aino-Aino-Uta” for a compilation CD recorded for tsunami/ earthquake relief.
“Our song is on there representing Tennessee,” J.P. said.
The CD, which is titled “Music Loves You,” features an international cast of musicians and a range of music, including a Latin artist from Brazil and a blues musician from New York. The album can be downloaded on iTunes.
Leona explained that areas along the coast of Japan suffered the most devastation from the earthquake and tsunami that struck the nation on March 11, 2011.
In some of the cities, such as Tokyo, the only evidence of the aftermath of the natural disaster is that the lights are dimmer.
“They’re cutting back on electricity to conserve energy,” J.P. said.
The earthquake and tsunami also obliterated a nuclear energy facility, which has also adversely affected nuclear energy-dependent Japan.
Leona noted that a lot of elderly Japanese citizens still need assistance. During their tour in 2011, they also participated in fundraising for those affected by the earthquake and tsunami.
On their current tour in Japan, the couple expects to meet many bluegrass music enthusiasts.
J.P. noted that Japan ranks third — behind the United States and Canada — among nations with people interested in bluegrass music.
“Some communities in Japan are really into bluegrass music,” Leona said.
The main source of American Roots music in the post-World War II era was through The U.S.Armed Forces Radio.
To still gain access to the broadcasts, Leona’s grandfather and other Japanese tech enthusiasts would change the frequency on their radios to pick up the American broadcasts.
One thing that continues to amaze Leona about life in the United States is how easy it is to meet other music enthusiasts.
“In Japan, you just don’t randomly meet people with such interests,” she said. “But here everybody seems to have musical connections.”
Her own family resides in Tokyo. Her brother is a guitar player and contributed to the track that Leona and J.P. gave to the CD, “Music Loves You.”
The couple has toured in Alaska and Hawaii with the American Bluegrass Masters Tour, which also featured such music legends as Bobby Osborne, Lonesome River Band and J.D. Crowe.
They both recalled the great time they had during their 10-day tour of Hawaii.
Locally, they enjoy playing periodically at The Down Home in Johnson City. The couple also recently performed at Johnson City’s Blue Plum Festival. They also love to perform at The Carter Fold in Hilton, Va. They agreed that the Carter Fold is their favorite place in the world to play.
Leona is excited to have her own solo album available. She recorded the album, “A New Peace Within,” at Bobby Osborne’s studio in Nashville as well as in Tokyo.
“With the technology available now, you could record and never leave your bedroom,” J.P. commented.
Leona’s album features 12 songs, with half of the tracks being traditional bluegrass tunes and the other half her original songs. The album features both instrumental music and vocals.
The front cover photo of her album was taken on the campus of Milligan College. The back cover photo was taken in Lanai in Hawaii.
For more information about her album, visit her Facebook page at facebook.com/fiddlingleona.