Busting bluegrass's biggest myth: The Kruger Brothers reveal all

 
 

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. 

Merlefest bingo: how did I do?

There are certain things you are supposed to experience at Merlefest. Here is my checklist of which ones I did and did not achieve:

Get to see one of your favourite bands up close and personal I stood at the feet of the Steep Canyon Rangers, and looked up at their fiddler Nicky Sanders, and felt like a total groupie. 

Hear James Taylor play The multi-Grammy-award-winning songwriter was the first name on everyone's lips this year - he lives in NC and I met people who bought festival passes just so they could see him. Unfortunately when he was on the mainstage with the Transatlantic Sessions, I got into my big conversation with Harmonica Bruce (see yesterday's blog), so while I was physically present for the gig I didn't actually hear a note. Ironically Bruce was telling me all the reasons why America didn't need or want the rest of the world while the band on stage, which celebrates the exchange of musical culture between different countries, was proving the exact opposite. 

Stay up late for the closing night's famous Midnight Jam It was totally worth losing sleep for. The impromptu mash-up bands on stage, from 10 String Symphony, Front Country, Molly Tuttle, Mipso and many more, had an average age of 25 and an average cool quotient of 11/10.

 
 

Pick with total strangers on a campground after hours Harder to achieve since I wasn't actually camping, but some of my new friends invited me back to the campsite they were staying on at a nearby sewage works. It didn't sound like the most fragrant proposition, but they promised me you couldn't smell anything, and they planned to hold their own "Sewerfest" on Saturday night. By the time I reached them everyone was packing up, and I had to persuade a couple of guys who had already put their guitars away to get them out and play with me. Luckily, people round here really don't need much persuading to pick some more. We were still going at 4.30am.

Lose your sunglasses They fell off my head as I was speeding around on a golf buggy with another Grammy-winner, David Holt. 

Watch the Hillside Album Hour Everyone told me this was the must-see event: the Waybacks, a quirky band out of San Francisco, have for the past 10 years presented their own live cover of an entire classic album. They have lots of special guests from the other bands on site, and keep the album they've chosen a big secret until they start playing it. Here were the hints they gave out on their Facebook page:

Clue #1: Mr. Jones really did not know what was happening here, did he?
Clue #2: Five of Five - we're off to a great start!
Clue #3: What's your name? Who's your daddy?
Clue #4: Anachronistic dramaturg invokes Tennyson loudly. 
Clue #5: Like an apeman I stand before the mixed-up Mormon I nearly left behind.

Have you got it?

 
 

The show's so popular that people get there hours early to lay down their tarps and set up their chairs. I arrived and set down my towel (I'm not a festival pro yet) on the steep slippery incline and discovered you need good core muscles just to stop yourself from sliding back down the hill. We waited through a 45 minute sound check which seemed as tortuous for the band as it was for the rest of us ("someone please gate that bass drum" was heard from the audience).

Eventually Jim Lauderdale appeared on stage to kick things off and after a long funko intro to throw us off the scent, Celia Woodsmith of Della Mae pulled on a marching band jacket and belted out the opening lines of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was relieved, because my knowledge of classic rock is limited and if it had been Bruce Springsteen like it was last year I'd have had to pretend I knew the songs.

Woodsmith's voice is incredible and she ripped up With A Little Help From My Friends. Hearing She's Leaving Home with a four-fiddle quartet was neat, as was Sam Bush and Jens Kruger shredding all those chaotic instrumentals in between songs. It was probably, also, the most I've ever enjoyed Fixing A Hole, which I have always found an epically boring song. Unfortunately sound problems plagued the set and more problematically the Waybacks' front man James Nash had laryngitis. Most of his parts had been hastily redistributed and things were a little off kilter throughout - I left feeling I'd have to come back next year to appreciate the true genius of the Hillside Album Hour.

Eat a funnel cake I heard them described as "fried dough injected with cream and covered in chocolate sauce" and decided I'd pass. 

 

Oh sure, I've played Merlefest with Pete Wernick

 
 

You can't say I lack ambition. One week in the States, and I've already made my festival debut, playing on the Cabin Stage at Merlefest. Sure, there were another 79 folk on the stage with me, and I was nowhere near a microphone, and the crowd was made up a few brave folk in anoraks who were determined to get the most of their day tickets, but you know what? IT STILL COUNTS.  

I’ve been to a decent amount of festivals now, but I’ve never been to one that’s quite so gloriously wholesome as Merlefest – a place where the kids who are throwing a ball to each other pause as you pass, to make sure they don’t hit you, or where people leave each other courteous little notes in the restroom instead of just stealing the wallet you left there.

 
 

I guess that’s partly the event’s history – it was founded by Doc Watson in memory of his son Merle, who died in a tractor accident – and it’s got that family vibe. And that’s maintained by the fact that you can neither nor bring nor buy alcohol on the grounds, which not only keeps the whole thing pretty clean-living, but probably puts off anyone who’s not really here for the music.

Talking of clean living, I met the Avett Brothers this morning on their tour bus. They opened the festival last night, and drew a big night crowd in spite of the persistent rain. Seth shared his memories of meeting Doc Watson when he was 14 years old (he even remembered the system Doc had for folding his bills in his wallet) and Scott, who looked like he might have the same cold as me, told me about learning to can vegetables, and the songs they used to have on their 8-track – Three Dog Night, Neil Young, John Denver, Bob Dylan and some songs by their Dad's band, Common Decency. I’ll share some more of that interview at a later time. While you're waiting, here's the stupid face I pulled when I took a pic with Pete and Joan Wernick:

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One thing that’s amazed me is that even though there are around 20,000 people on site, I keep bumping into people I know. Yes people: I’ve been here a WEEK, and I already have friends! Or at least, people who will acknowledge me when they see me and stop for a chat. I’m counting that as friendship.

I also met Bruce. He won $200 at a harmonica competition last year, he lives on the road, going from festival to festival, and he played me some spoons. He was great to talk to, even if he was insistent that I’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for his great country.