Brothers Jens and Uwe Kruger, originally from Switzerland, began singing and playing instruments at a very young age. “I always wanted to be a musician and a composer,” Jenz told me recently. “I had great encouragement when I was growing up. Although I never had formal training, I always had the opportunity to play with really good people.”
Although Jens and Uwe grew up in Switzerland, their parents were German immigrants, so they brought with them their German folk music. “Both of my parents could make music,” he recalled. “They had guitars and an Accordion, and we would sing as a family every night. Music for them represented a connectedness to their home. But when we were out on the playground with the other kids from Switzerland we really couldn’t sing those songs. So, American folk music became a neutral ground for us.”
The brothers were exposed to American folk music because their father was a fan of Jazz, and Country as well. “We would listen to the American radio network often,” Jens recalled. “They would feature the country music programs and the bluegrass shows with artists like Bill Monroe. When we were kids we listened to those shows just like kids from Arkansas. Looking back, I think we had more country music in our home than people from New York.”
A Common Instrument
“The guitar was very common where I grew up. Everybody played. And we loved listening to artists like Doc Watson. We couldn’t imagine that all of that sound could come out of a guitar from just one person. His songs were very similar to our Northern German folk songs, so we fell in love with his music. And I fell in love with the sound of the banjo too. I thought it had a very beautiful, clean sound.”
Jens and Uwe naturally began playing music together and quickly found an audience for their songs. “We had our first paying show in 1974,” Jens told me. “By 1979 we had left home and became street musicians. We played on the streets everyday and traveled around Europe.” Six months later, Jens at 17, brother Uwe 18, were offered their first record deal when CBS Records saw them playing on the street.
Bill Changes Everything
It was a unique and unplanned opportunity in 1982 that changed the course of music for Jens. “I traveled to New York with my wife (girlfriend at the time) and rented a car to drive to Indiana (Bean Blossom) so I could personally thank Bill Monroe for his influence on my music. I walked up to the stage after one of his shows just to thank him, and he looked at me and said, ‘can you play with me tomorrow?’ I had no idea if he even knew I could play,” Jens said.
The next day Bill invited Jens up on stage to play with him. “Then he told where he was going to play next and invited me to play with him again. And I ended up playing with him all summer. Then, he invited us to stay on his farm. He gave me a house to stay in, and we lived right across the creek from where his house was. We stayed there the whole summer.”
“I was a street musician, and I had been playing since I was a kid, so I knew I could really play, wild, and different, and when you’re young, you’re fearless, and I think it was that combination that struck a chord with Bill. He enjoyed my playing. We instantly became friends and played a lot of music together. More importantly though, I think, is that I learned very, very much from him. He was the first musician I had met in my life, to that point, that was not just a great musician. He was also a great visionary. He would talk about ancient tones and all kinds of sounds that he heard in his head. He had these mysterious ideas about music heritage that gave birth to these sounds he was creating. I had never met anybody with that amount of visionary power.”
Jens had already written a lot of music when he met Bill. “He was very interested in what I was writing. He would say, ‘play me something,’ and then he would tell me, ‘that sounds like me, or that sounds like Earl Scruggs, now play me something of yours,’ and he told me one day, ‘that’s you, whether you like it or not.’ I never forgot that. He really encouraged me to be me, and not to pretend to be like someone else. ”
Coming To America
In 1997, The Kruger Brothers’ formally introduced their unique style of folk/Americana to American audiences. Their remarkable ability to infuse classical music into folk music was an instant attraction and has resulted in a unique sound that has made them a highly respected fixture within the world of acoustic music. With the more recent addition of New York City native, Joel Landsberg, the trio has been performing together since 1995, and is now based in Wilkesboro, NC where they have become a familiar act to audiences at the annual Merlefest hosted there on the campus of Wilkes Community College.
Jens was awarded the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music in 2013, the fourth recipient of this prestigious honor. He also was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame in 2011, and was nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Banjo Player of the Year Award for 2016.
A Classical Approach
In 2006, Jens was commissioned to write Music from the Spring for banjo, guitar, bass and full symphonic orchestra. It was his official venture into the themes and forms of classical, and has since been commissioned to compose five such projects, with the latest being a chamber music piece written specifically for and commissioned by the Kontras Quartet; called the Roan Mountain Suite. The piece is in honor of the region, history and legacy of Tennessee’s Roan Mountain.
Judy Murray founder of The Stanley A. Murray Roan Mountain Suite Memorial Fund said, “Roan can be perceived in many ways through all of our senses. Countless beautiful words have been written about the Roan, and glorious photographs have been taken, but I’ve always felt that Roan needed a wonderful piece of music to pay tribute to it, to honor it. When I heard the Kruger Brothers and works that Jens had composed, I knew I’d found my composer and my musicians.”
Another aspect of the Kruger Brothers contribution to the music community is the Kruger Brothers Music Academy, held annually in their hometown of Wilkesboro. It is a workshop style event that includes small group sessions for banjo, guitar, and bass, working directly with Jens, Uwe and Joel. All skill levels are invited to participate too, it’s not just for seasoned musicians. Large group jams are included, as well as a showcase evening. “We not only teach students on different instruments, we try to teach them how they all work together,” Jens said, “and how music is constructed and composed as well, and how you can tell a story with your music too. It’s a very beautiful weekend.”
The Kruger brothers are headed into the studio this summer to record their latest, “all singing songs,” Jens said. The Kontras Quartet will be featured again on this project. “We wanted to feature Uwe’s voice more too, and just really tell some stories again.”