Maybe it doesn’t matter where the mountains are, so long as there are mountains.
The Kruger Brothers, one of the finest bands of their kind in the world, perform progressively minded, classically conscious music that’s wildly diverse but ultimately rooted in the tradition of American bluegrass, a genre born in the foothills of Appalachia. But Jens and Uwe Kruger grew up in the shadows of another mountain range: the Swiss Alps.
The children of German immigrants, the Kruger brothers were inundated with American folk and bluegrass. Their father had studied in the States in the ’50s, and brought back with him the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Tom Paxton, singers who were popular in Germany around that time. Jens was so fascinated with the banjo music of Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe that he taught himself how to play on a broken instrument, nailing the strings to the pegboard. By the time they were 16, he and Uwe, himself a virtuoso guitarist, eked out a living as street musicians traveling across Europe.
“In Europe, when we played banjos and guitars, it was more expected of us to be more like American music,” Kruger says. “It wasn’t expected that Europeans would reinvent their own music on American instruments.”
They met Joel Landsberg, the group’s bassist, in the mid-’90s, when they performed together in a Western-style musical. Landsberg, who emigrated to Switzerland with his Swiss-born ex-wife, was a classically trained New York City studio musician steeped in Broadway, disco, and funk. He was working as a sideman in a litany of bands, but he’d never played anything resembling roots music, let alone bluegrass, before.
“It took me moving 3,500 miles from home to be introduced to it,” Landsberg laughs.
All three soon dropped all their other projects to focus solely on The Kruger Brothers, largely playing a grist of American music, bluegrass and country especially. In 1982, Jens Kruger spent a summer being mentored by Bill Monroe, who introduced him to a murderers’ row of Grand Ol’ Opry players.
But Monroe urged Kruger to go his own way, too.
“He encouraged me to write my own music because I’m not from Kentucky,” Kruger laughs.
Eventually, the brothers would come to America, settling in Wilkesboro, N.C. — home to the late Doc Watson’s MerleFest, where The Kruger Brothers made their American debut in 1997.
“Doc was a very big influence on us,” Landsberg says. “And he was always one of our biggest supporters. He said, ‘You boys just keep doing what you’re doing. Just play the music that you play, and people will love you for who you are.'”
The Brothers’ early American influence yielded soon after the trio moved to North Carolina in 2003, and the Krugers increasingly incorporated elements of European folk and classical music into their music. Soon enough, they’d write a flowing suite (the 2007 record Suite), a graceful bluegrass-trio-and-string-quartet concerto (2010’s Appalachian Concerto) and, most recently, a full-scale orchestral production, this year’s Spirit of the Rockies.
Slowly, the traditionalist mentality that dominated their rootsy material gave way, too.
“What was beautiful for us in America is that people accepted us,” Kruger says. “In Europe it was more difficult because people wouldn’t accept my music in the same way Americans would. The idea that a banjo would play with a symphony is far-fetched.” He laughs. “Bach is pretty much our folk music, you know?”
Indeed, bluegrass has long worked more as a departure point than a cornerstone for The Kruger Brothers, who incorporate bebop, free jazz, and classical styles into their dervish music. It’s European crafted, but wholly American.
“It’s not as American, per se,” as what they started playing, Kruger says, “but it’s as American as it can get. [We’re] immigrants playing their music in a way so everyone else in America can understand it. That’s a very American way of doing things.”
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