Seven years ago, when I first visited North Carolina, there was one band that everyone, but everyone, told me I needed to visit. “Have you met the Kruger Brothers yet?” was a question I was asked whenever I’d mentioned my interest in bluegrass. The fact that I have recently spent a lot of time near Wilkes County – their home seat – means that I have now been canvassed about Jens and Uwe Kruger so many times I think I have RSI from shaking and nodding my head. No, I haven’t met them. Yes, I have heard their music. Yes, I do love it.
People rave about the Kruger Brothers here, and their stories almost always include some sort of personal memory of how nice and down to earth they are. The reason that people want to tell me about them isn’t just that they’re brilliant musicians. It’s the fact that these guys were originally from Switzerland. Being someone from Europe who had fallen in love with the American South and its music, the kindhearted folk round here have always assumed we would have get along.
There’s also the fact that they have taken their zeal for bluegrass and banjo and imported it into a classical style of music – their Appalachian Concerto, for banjo, guitar, bass and string quartet, for instance, or their newly released Roan Mountain Suite, which they recorded with the Kontras quartet. As a classical violinist venturing into bluegrass territory, I thought it would indeed be fascinating to meet the guys who are travelling in the opposite direction.
So this week I headed up to their recording studio, a large red barn which sits in between their two family homes, to find out how and why this pair of brothers who grew up in the Swiss countryside came to be this area’s greatest musical celebrities. Now, I certainly found that out. Jens and Uwe have a fascinating shared story, one I can’t wait to write about, that includes learning to play music on homemade instruments, becoming childhood prodigies, spending years on Europe’s secret international busking circuit, and a near-miraculous encounter with Bill Monroe that didn’t just provide him with his break in bluegrass, but helped him find his voice as a composer and creator of an entirely new genre.
But none of that was as great as the BIG SECRET they shared with me and which has potentially CHANGED MY BLUEGRASS LIFE. Apparently all this mythology around how bluegrass is 99% improvised is absolute tosh. Jens says if you listen to the recordings of the first bluegrass bands, they’re playing the same breaks over and over again. And the human brain can’t even process the number of notes you’d be required to come up with if you were making all this stuff up on the fly.
This has had profound implications not just for my own practice but also for my state of mind. For the last month I’d been feeling like whatever I did I was never going to be able to find a place as a bluegrass fiddler because my brain just didn’t work as fast as everyone else’s. Since I found out that’s not true I’ve been walking around with a big grin on my face and a newfound spring in my bowing.
Aside from all that, I also discovered that everything I’ve heard about the Kruger Brothers is actually true. They are sweet, kind, approachable, and have a MILLION interesting things to say about bluegrass, and the USA, and brotherhood. Uwe got all excited recalling their first skiffle band, and remembering the records they used to play; Jens described Uwe buying him a banjo that he couldn’t have afforded alone and I nearly shed a little tear right there at the kitchen table.
My favourite moment came just as I left. I was about to head back to my car, for the next stage of my road trip, and Uwe suddenly stopped me. “Emma, wait, do you have food?” I had a salad for lunch, I said. He dived his arms into some huge boxes of snacks in the kitchen and loaded me up until I could barely see over the top of them. Jens followed up with an armful of water bottles, and they both told me to be sure to call them if I had any problems, if I had a breakdown, or an accident, or any kind of medical emergency. They would be there, they said. And you just know they would.