“Music is like a rope, like a ladder, like a door to another world,” says Jens Kruger, banjo player and singer of The Kruger Brothers. “It’s the place you can reach with painting, love, your spouse, your grandchildren. When you’re there it’s difficult to recall how you got there, and when you’re out of it you want to go back. Without music, I cannot find that place. And music can always get me back.”
On Thursday, Nov. 9, from 7 to 10 p.m., The Kruger Brothers perform at the Robert E. Lee Auditorium in Pinecrest High School. The Concert for Veterans Support Fund is presented by the Sandhills Chapter of Military Officers Association of America, and all proceeds from the event will be donated to the Veterans Support Fund.
Tickets are $20 for general admission and $30 for reserved seating and can be purchased through Eventbrite. General admission tickets are available locally at Given Book Shop in The Roast Office, Given Memorial Library, Pinewild Country Club and Heavenly Pines Jewelry, all in Pinehurst, and The Country Bookshop, Mockingbird and Casino Guitars, located in Southern Pines.
Accompanying Jens Kruger are his brother, lyricist, lead singer and acoustic guitarist Uwe Kruger and bassist and vocalist Joel Landsberg. Raised in Switzerland, the German brothers Jens and Uwe would lay a guitar between them, take three strings each and mimic the American music brought home from their father’s business trips.
“American music was like a little bit of refuge,” Jens Kruger says. For the sake of 1840s tourism, the impoverished Swiss “killed their music, their folk music in its completeness” in exchange for music “overly happy” and “shallow,” he says. Furthermore, the centuries old, complex German folk songs were not allowed out of the brothers’ house after World War II.
“But when we sang American folk songs in English,” Kruger says, “everybody seemed to be OK with it.”
The brothers attached themselves to the bluegrass of Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and Pete Seeger. Uwe Kruger learned English from a local professor and translated to Jens with a dictionary, leading the brothers to perform.
During a trip with his new wife, Christa, to Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, 19-year-old Jens Kruger complimented Bill Monroe on his playing. In response, Monroe invited Kruger to join him on that stage, and soon after, at the Grand Ole Opry. Sitting at the kitchen table later that night, Monroe said, “Don’t play bluegrass; you’re not from Kentucky. You’re a good musician from Europe, and you have your own influences. I want to hear what they are.”
The pre-classical Northern German songs of Kruger’s family, the kindergarten songs taught by his mother in Switzerland, classical music, his culture and heritage flooded Kruger’s mind.
“I had abandoned these things that I was so connected to that I really loved,” he says. “So I took those sentiments and put them on the banjo.”
Kruger returned to Europe, learned 4,000 albums of the Bluegrass family, and started to compose with “the sounds of me, the sounds of my inner pictures that I could fill with music,” he said in a Appalachian Music and Culture interview.
He reunited with his brother Uwe, who had become a successful country music artist, and met Joel Landsberg, the prodigy of Milt Hinton, who Jens calls “one of the finest bass players that the world has.” The three hosted a national radio show, instructed, and played 240 acts a year. They still had not begun sharing their original music except for a single album “Days in the Field,” recorded by Jens, Uwe, and Christa Kruger into one microphone.
In 1997, the band was unexpectedly invited to play at Merlefest. Unbeknownst to them, Alison Krauss’s banjo player had heard “Days in the Field” and encouraged Merlefest to book the band. The Kruger Brothers played one song from that album during a set of Doc Watson and traditional tunes. Afterward, people flooded the stage, asking where they could buy it.
The musical kinship of European folk and bluegrass is unique to the Kruger Brothers.
“You have to make a mark if you want to be become a real successful musician in America,” Monroe had said to Jens years earlier. This was their mark, generating tours so frequent and demanded that the brothers have since immigrated to the United States, settling in Wilkesboro.
“I think people like it because I take care of the melodies, and I keep it followable,” Jens Kruger says. “Uwe has a very soothing voice. He’s like a man who tells you a story.”
At the concert, the band will perform the first movement of the “Appalachian Concerto,” along with their regular program and some specials for the veterans like “Fields of Gold” and “Appalachian Mists.”
“My mother was a refugee at seven years old, standing there in a war torn city in Germany, and an American solider jumped out of a truck and cried and gave her chocolate,” Jens Kruger says. “There’s more than serving your country. There’s the humanity that you spread by living that way, even if you’re in war and dressed the same and have to follow orders. The humanity of the individual is so important. That formed the base in our family that America is a good place.”
The event is sponsored by Cooper Ford, AAFMAA Wealth Management & Trust LLC, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, Pinehurst Reality Group, St. Joseph of the Pines, and the village of Pinehurst.
Katherine Smith is a longtime freelance writer for The Pilot.