The Kruger Brothers Find New Direction in Their Mix of Influences
The Kruger Brothers have brought to American music a vast musical range and versatility of vision. Through their association with Doc Watson and MerleFest, they’ve built a conscious fusion of the bluegrass and Appalachian music they came to America to grow with, their European roots in classical musicianship, and their early lives busking as rock and folk musicians in their Swiss homeland, Germany, and around Europe. Today, they play everywhere from bluegrass festivals to sold-out concert halls, as a trio and accompanied by symphony orchestras around the world.
My wife and I first saw The Kruger Brothers at a Wednesday evening jam on the grounds of Wilkes Community College (home of MerleFest) sponsored by the Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society. Small jams were scattered around outside a fairly large tent, but a goodly crowd assembled around a group of ten people, local musicians from age eight or so to well into their sixties, that was gently dominated by three people. I was amazed at Jens Kruger’s versatility on the banjo, as well as with his personal warmth, and the encouragement he was giving to young musicians sitting in with the jam. Later, as we came to know the Krugers, we came to see how they worked to feature young up-and-comers, like the Snyder Family, whom they have featured at their own festival, Carolina in the Fall in Wilkesboro, as well as older musicians — like the late Tut Taylor, the famous flat-picking Dobro man, and Maynard Holbrook, a marvelous primitive singer — whose work have become epic in traditional and innovative music. Along the way, Jens won the $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. Below is a clip featuring The Kruger Brothers with Maynard Holbrook and Laura Boosinger at MerleFest.
… and with Zeb Snyder at the Cook Shack in Union Grove, North Carolina, where there are breakfast shows on Saturday mornings.
Uwe (pronounced YEW-vay) Kruger plays subtle, nuanced flat-pick guitar as well as powerful rhythm while singing in a resonant baritone voice. His warmth and quick good humor are always on display, as is the excellence of his musicianship, as he and Jens (pronounced “Yenz”) trade leads within the complex configuration of the recent, more classical style or the traditional music they arrived with and thrived on. Here’s Uwe singing Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” with which they often conclude one of their longer pieces combining their various styles.
The “third Kruger Brother” is New Yorker Joel Landsburg who, as a young bass player, moved to Europe, where he played in a variety of rock and jazz bands, eventually joining The Kruger Brothers as they toured Europe before coming to the US in order to live near Doc Watson and to soak up traditional mountain music. As is often true with the bass, Landsburg’s work is both understated and absolutely essential to creating the Kruger sound. It’s at the workshops they often present at festivals where the remarkable communication between these three men becomes apparent, as they move from discussion of their style to musical examples with no obvious communication, in perfect timing, without seeming to count or kick off any segment. Watch Landsburg’s understated and amusing role in this older version of “Dueling Banjos,” adapted from the movie Deliverance.
In recent years, The Kruger Brothers, led in this direction by composer Jens Kruger, have moved from their original emphasis on bluegrass and mountain music toward a fusion with their European roots in classical music, playing with the likes of the Kontras Quartet and select symphony orchestras like the Bangor, Maine, Symphony. In 2005, they released two collections called Carolina Scrapbook, containing collaborations with a plethora of traditional Carolina musicians. More recently, their work has come in the form of compositions with titles like Roan Mountain Suite and Spirit of the Rockies that contain a mixture of lengthy symphonic interludes interspersed with lyrical, vocal storytelling. The effect is electric for their audiences, who become entranced, are moved to tears, and then enthusiastically cheer the always rousing finales. Here is the Appalachian Concerto, performed with the Kontras Quartet:
During the last few years, we’ve seen The Kruger Brothers in a variety of venues, where they have always been received with almost boundless enthusiasm from the regular crowds even as they attract day visitors who would not ordinarily be attending bluegrass festivals. From HoustonFest in that home of tradtional music, Galax, Virginia, to Strawberry Park in Connecticut they draw crouds. At IBMA last year, accompanied by a wonderful chamber orchestra, they filled the Red Hat Amphitheater with fans and newcomers who cheered for minutes at the close of their performance. With all that, my favorite song of theirs remains the following simple anthem to the simple joys of North Carolina.