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. 

Isis: a tale of terror (and ludicrously fast picking)

 
 

I’d heard that you couldn’t throw a rock in Asheville without hitting a musician. I haven’t tested out the theory yet, because I don’t want to way myself down with pockets full of pebbles, but I’m pretty sure it holds up. I’ve been here almost a week and practically everyone I’ve met has either been in the music business or closely related to someone who is.

There’s really no room for amateurs here and, I’ll be honest, I’m out of my league. On Tuesday nights there’s an open jam at the Isis Music Hall – yes, it's really called that, and no, they won't change the name, because it's a renovated movie theatre from 1937 and its name is literally up in lights – in trendy West Asheville, just a couple of minutes down the road from the place I was staying. At about 9.30pm, the restaurant space was filled with diners, and on a large stage overlooking them were a bunch of guys playing some of the fastest bluegrass I have ever heard.

The banjo player was a guy called Judo I’d met the week before at a jam down near Hickory. (His name’s actually Aaron, but he does judo, so that’s what people call him). He waved me backstage to a green room where a host of other musicians who’d just got off stage were sitting and chatting. They were pretty friendly but I was terrified by the sounds coming off the stage. I know where my playing’s at right now, and there is no way I could fiddle that fast. I decided to keep a low profile and try to avoid going out on stage at all.

But that wasn’t the deal here, and after a while someone popped their head out of the door that leads to the stage and said it was time for fresh blood. I walked up there like I was heading to the gallows. Which is probably a good experience for a bluegrass musician, considering how many murder ballads end like that.

Someone asked me what I’d like to play. I saw my only chance of survival. I said, how about something slow, like a waltz? They agreed. I got through it. I stayed on for a couple more tunes. Later in the evening, I had another go, this time in the company of a second fiddler called Scott, who provided welcome cover every time I was out of my depth.

Being out on stage was easily the worst part of the night. The best bit was sitting in the green room with the unbelievable host of talent back there, watching them picking at lightning speed, enjoying each other’s company. My favourite moment was hearing a haunting sound emerging from the bathroom, and realising two of the musicians had gone in there together to play tunes because they liked the acoustic so much. One of them was actually perched on the toilet, fiddling. They were still there when the jam was over, playing til after midnight.

Later in the week I'm going to do a round up of all the amazing talented musicians I've met so you can check out some of their work. Until then, here's a video I took from the balcony, of some of the guys playing…

 
 
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The secrets of Earl Scruggs's life, finally revealed

 
 

“Did anyone tell you about the statue?” the nice woman at the museum asked me. I shook my head. She pointed back at the life-size man, wearing a Stetson and carrying a Gibson banjo, a depiction of the most famous banjo player of all time. “That statue is actually wearing all of Earl Scruggs’s clothes. Everything, from his suit to his tie to his wedding band, are his real personal items. They hung them on a metal frame and then covered them in resin.” I look back at the statue, an anaemic grey colour, and wonder what Louise, his wife and tough-minded manager, would have thought. I suspect she’d at least have vetoed the wedding ring.

The Earl Scruggs Center, a tribute to Shelby’s most famous son, is house in the old Cleveland County Courthouse, slap bang in the middle of town. Downstairs, the museum includes some nice artefacts like the fiddle Scruggs’s father used to play in the morning to get the kids out of bed (Scruggs didn’t remember much else about his dad, who died when he was five). But the day I visited, the real action was all upstairs, in the auditorium. You could hear the music tumbling down the old courthouse stairs.

A band of musicians, including Darin and Brooke Aldridge, and members of Scruggs’s family, had gathered for a jam to launch a new book, Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon, the first biography of the man who pioneered bluegrass banjo, and who passed away five years ago. I’m just about to start my copy, but here are the few things I learned from my trip round the museum, and from my chat with the book’s authors, David L Russell and Gordon Castelnero:

1 Scruggs didn't necessarily invent the three-finger picking for which he’s famous, and which became the defining sound of bluegrass banjo. Everyone talks about the ‘eureka’ moment when he had a fight with his brother, went to sulk in his room and suddenly discovered how to play a three-finger roll, but there seems to be a good bit of evidence that other people who were experimenting with that style too. Still, he sure did it better than anyone else.

2 Banjo players seemed to live pretty rackety lives. Charlie Poole died after a 13 week alcohol binge. And this guy, Smith Hammett, died in a violent brawl…

 
 

3 Lester Flatt, Scruggs’s musical partner, used to get jealous at all the attention Scruggs got for his banjo playing. (Fiddle players are so insecure). And Scruggs once turned down a major recurring role on a new TV show because he knew it would upset Flatt.

4 Scruggs seemed barely aware of his own legacy. He was, said Russell and Castelnero, an incredibly humble man, more so than they could ever have expected, and he wasn’t precious – he’d play with anyone and everyone.

5 He wanted banjo music to evolve. He wasn’t interested in playing the standards, and keeping bluegrass music as a pure tradition. That’s how he ended up playing in his sons’ garage band.

One more thing I learned, on my journey back, was that at the J&S Cafeteria, blue jello is considered an appetizer, and if you want to eat vegetables you’d better be prepared for them to come with a layer of marshmallow on top.

And here's a nice little piece about Scruggs's importance to bluegrass, published in the New Yorker the week he died.

A town called Boone

 
Playing fiddle tunes with Julie outside Jones House, Boone, NC

Playing fiddle tunes with Julie outside Jones House, Boone, NC

 

I think I'm falling for a town called Boone.

We didn't hit it off straight away. It’s less than 50 miles from Taylorsville, where I’ve been staying, but roughly 45 of those miles seemed to be uphill, and by the time I arrived my car’s miles per gallon had plummeted. I was feeling pretty grudging of the place when I pulled in to the Appalachian Music Shoppe to buy myself some replacement strings.

The nice man behind the counter knew all about the bluegrass jam I was heading to. I was about four hours early for it, so I asked him where I could get a cup of coffee and he looked a bit bemused. There was a Starbucks concession in the local grocery store, he said. My opinion of Boone sank further. Where were the funky cafes where I could sit and use the wifi and nurse a drink for an exploitatively long time?

Things started looking up when I discovered the Appalachian Mountain Brewery. It had a dozen beers on tap, half a dozen ciders and a food truck outside serving pizza and veggie tacos. (It also had The Lumineers blasting from the speakers, but you can't have everything.) But what's really thrilling about Boone is the music. I've been to back-to-back jams there this week, each completely different, each brilliant in their own way. 

 
My view from the back of the stage (hiding off mic) at the Red White and Bluegrass jam, Boone

My view from the back of the stage (hiding off mic) at the Red White and Bluegrass jam, Boone

 

The Red, White and Bluegrass Jam at the Harvest House takes place on stage in front of an audience, and is led by seriously impressive musicians from local bands like Surefire and ClayBank. (This was pretty intimidating for a newcomer like me, but they were incredibly encouraging and affirming and also let me hide at the back of the stage whenever I wanted.) Meanwhile Murphys, one of the restaurants on the main street, hosts an open jam on Wednesday nights where musicians of all levels come together and sit round in the traditional circle, right in the middle of the dining room. 

 
 

If that wasn't enough, there's a historic house called Jones House which hosts regular gigs and a weekly old-time jam, and has a pretty garden outside it where you can sit outside and pick in the daytime and no one will come shouting at you to get off their lawn. And the Appalachian State University here has an entire archive of Appalachian culture, including bluegrass recordings and documentaries and manuscripts going back to the very dawn of the music. 

Also it has this law firm. 

 
 

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. 

 

"And this one time, at jam camp…"

 
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It took six hours to reach North Carolina from Virginia, and it would have been a beautiful drive if it hadn’t been pouring with unseasonal rain most of the way. I arrived in Wilkes County – in the foothills of the Appalchians – with the kind of cold that runs through a box of tissues in under an hour.

I came here for a four-day “jam camp” with 80 other bluegrass pickers, many of us relative novices. In the damp, but otherwise pleasant, environs of the YMCA Camp Harrison, we have been gently instructed in the art of jamming by Pete Wernick, aka Dr Banjo. This is a bit like going to a summer soccer school and discovering that your teacher is, I don’t know, Pele. Wernick’s band Hot Rize was one of the most influential bluegrass bands of the 80s, and he also pretty much invented Flexigrass, a genre of music that combined bluegrass with jazz.

He and his wife Joan have run music camps for several years, and have built a large roster of talented teachers; Pete has a gift for the pastoral as well as for the banjo, while Joan (who is also his duet partner) keeps both him and the pupils in check. Each day contains multiple sessions – instrument lessons, harmony singing tutorials, “electives” where you can learn the history of bluegrass, or how to set up a PA – but most of your time is devoted to jamming in small groups, and designed to boost the confidence and experience of even the greenest of players.

If it was the perfect way to kickstart my playing, it was also a good place to discover some of my darkest fears about this trip. There were several young teenagers who played with an ease and brilliance I can never hope to match. Invariably, I’d ask how long they’d been playing – hoping to hear that their father had clamped their hands to a mandolin when they were still unable to form words – and it would turn out that they’d only been doing it a couple of years.

I’m also getting called “Ma’am” a lot, which sounds very lovely and polite, but makes me realise that I am now very definitely out of the “Miss” category that I have held onto for so long. The South is the only place that can inform you, with such brutal courtesy, that you’re not young any more.