Uwe Kruger’s voice was hard to understand during our recent phone interview, but not because of the bluegrass musician’s furry Swiss accent. Ironically, it was the decidedly American Merlefest that made communication so difficult.
Quick and fearsome picking soared in the background, and Kruger struggled to articulate (in careful and correct English) over the steady joy of the crowd. And though the Kruger Brothers (Jens Kruger and another interloper, New Yorker Joel Lansberg, complete the group) sing the “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” on their latest release, Travel the Gravel (Double Time Records, 1998), being invited to play the Southeast’s most beloved bluegrass festival isn’t likely to leave them with that affliction. For Uwe and Jens, at least, mingling with legends like Doc Watson is a waking dream.
The band appeared at Merlefest for the first time two years ago, coming back in 1998, and again this year, at Doc Watson’s personal request. Kruger remembers fondly the first time he heard Watson’s music: “It blew me away — it wasn’t possible that someone could play the guitar like that.”
It might also seem impossible that a pair of country-music-loving youngsters from Switzerland would grow up to become international bluegrass players, touring both Europe and America to considerable acclaim. But Kruger points out that a good percentage of Swiss people are well-traveled, and therefore familiar with American music. Their own affection for that sweet mountain sound was instilled by their father.
“Our dad went to work in Colorado and came back with records. … We were listening to Chet Atkins, Flat & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers,” he remembers.
The boys were barely into double digits when they made their public debut in the early 1970s: “We were paid $40 to play in a department store,” Kruger says with a laugh. Not bad for a first gig. But he’s quick to find the low note in those days, too: Untrue women and that devil in the bottle weren’t the banes of these aspiring pickers — instead it was a scarcity of supplies that gave them the blues.
“If you needed strings on your guitar, you had to wait two months to get them, and you couldn’t get picks, because no one [in Switzerland] was playing with them,” he remembers. “We made picks out of yogurt cans.”
As in America, Swiss bluegrass fans come in many forms, claims Kruger: “Everyone from 8 to 80,” he affirms. The Brothers’ fan base there remains thunderously strong, but from the beginning, the Krugers aimed to conquer America. In 1982, Jens Kruger became the first European to play the Grand Ole Opry.
“It was a revelation for [Jens] … it changed his life,” his brother declares. “After that, [we knew] we were going to be professional musicians. I mean, we’d played a lot of music, but that experience really gave him insight into the music world.”
In the band’s biography, Jens offers this ruminative theory on the relationship between musician and audience: “Fragments of hope, feelings of gladness, sadness or being left alone are hard to make understandable. The expression of self via means of sound is the most direct path for me. … It is an interesting fact that, even as most audiences have little understanding for musical theory, they can all experience what the artist feels during a performance. … Since we are all creatures of feelings, the technical aspects are merely a means to an end.”
Nonetheless, it’s been the Swiss brothers’ dizzying fingerwork (more than 200 beats per minute, at times) that’s kept skeptics at bay. “Everyone has been [supportive] of us,” Kruger says proudly. “Of course, there are prejudiced people all over, but mostly we’ve found that [American] people are proud that people from all the way across the ocean like their music. They love it. With this kind of music, if people are [even] halfway paying attention, they think it’s beautiful.”
Bluegrass, he decides thoughtfully, “is such a broad style, with so many things in it. It has heart, soul, and yet it drives like rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of music in Europe is idealistic; it’s about what things are supposed to be like. But bluegrass is very true: It doesn’t lie to you.”