As a child, Jens Kruger of Wilkesboro mountain-music trio The Kruger Brothers was so fascinated with the music of Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe that he taught himself how to play banjo on a broken instrument, nailing the strings to the peg board. “I like the sound of the banjo,” he says. “For me, mentally, it’s connected to the books of Samuel Clemens. It was a bridge to another world.”
The Kruger Brothers — who perform a two-night stint at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21 and 22 — play progressively minded, classically conscious music. It’s wildly diverse but ultimately rooted in the tradition of American bluegrass, a genre born in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But Jens Kruger and his brother, Uwe, who plays guitar in the group, grew up in the shadows of another mountain range: the Swiss Alps.
The children of German immigrants, Jens and Uwe were immersed in American folk and bluegrass even though they were living in Switzerland. Their father had studied in the U.S. in the ’50s; the music of Scruggs, Monroe, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie became their transcontinental textbooks. When he was 10, Jens got a Pete Seeger songbook and a proper banjo from his mother; by the time Jens was 16, he and Uwe eked out a living busking across Europe. The German folk songs they grew up singing at home didn’t go over so well in Cold War-era Europe, Jens says. But American folk music, strangely, was neutral territory.
“American folk songs came in handy because they were very similar to northern German folk songs,” Jens says. “This is always what fascinated us about American folk music. Growing up in central Europe, we heard Austrian folk music and French folk music and Italian folk music. And we heard all of those things in the music of the Appalachians. You could hear the different cultures.”
In an effort to further immerse himself bluegrass’s cultural convergence, Jens flew to America when he was 19 and spent a summer in Kentucky. There he was tutored by bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe, who brought Jens to the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe also urged Jens to forge his own path. “He encouraged me to write my own music because I’m not from Kentucky,” Jens says. “Or Shelby, North Carolina.”
Eventually, the Kruger Brothers would settle about two hours north in Wilkesboro. That town is the home of the late Doc Watson, another of the Krugers’ bluegrass mentors, and his MerleFest festival, where The Kruger Brothers made their debut in 1997. “The American culture always had this open door for us as Germans, because we could relate to so many things culturally and musically,” Jens says. “What was beautiful for us in America is that people accepted us.”
Since the band’s immigration to North Carolina for good in 2003, the traditionalist mentality that once dominated their rootsy material has slowly given way. And the Krugers have increasingly incorporated elements of European folk and classical music into their music. They wrote a flowing instrumental composition (the 2007 record Suite), a graceful strings arrangement meant for orchestra accompaniment (2010’s Appalachian Concerto) and, most recently, a full-scale orchestral production, this year’s Spirit of the Rockies. But Jens is quick to note that so much of what, today, is considered folk music is rooted in classical traditions. Indeed, the Appalachian sound has long worked more as a departure point than a cornerstone for The Kruger Brothers, who incorporate bebop, free jazz and classical styles into their diverse music.
“We’ve never considered ourselves a bluegrass band,” says Kruger Brothers bassist Joel Landsberg. (In a great stroke of irony, Landsberg grew up in New York City and is a classically trained musician. He jokes that it took him moving to Switzerland, where he met Jens and Uwe, to be introduced to American bluegrass.) “We have the instrumentation of bluegrass bands, but we’re not from Kentucky. We don’t have a fiddle. We’re not trying to sound like Bill Monroe in 1952. We pay homage to that music.”
Jens adds, “[We’re] immigrants playing their music in a way so everyone else in America can understand it. That’s a very American way of doing things.”
WHO: The Kruger Brothers
WHERE: Isis Restuarant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21 and 22, at 8:30 p.m. $25 in advance/$28 day of show