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A Swiss Take On Appalachian Music

A Betty Fisher album hangs in The Kruger Brothers recording studio in Wilkesboro.Brothers Jens and Uve and their bassist, Joel
Briana Duggan
A Betty Fisher album hangs in The Kruger Brothers recording studio in Wilkesboro.Brothers Jens and Uve and their bassist, Joel

Jens and Uwe Kruger play music the way birds fly in formation - synchronized. They are brothers who always anticipate the other's next movement. They have been playing music together their whole lives. They grew up in Switzerland - not far from Zurich. They had no TV, so their evenings were spent in song. Uwe Kruger leads a guitar workshop at the first Kruger Brother's Academy.

This spring, the band invited guitar, banjo, and bass players to their recording studio in Wilkesboro for a weekend course which included technique, theory and plenty of jamming. Photo: Briana Duggan "We listened to country music we listened to classical music and we sang our German folk songs." Uwe said. He's the older brother of the two. Some evenings his mom would place a guitar on the floor between her boys. One brother would take the lower three strings, the other would take the upper three - and they would make music together. An American English teacher first turned them on to folk music. He used Americana music - Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger - to teach his students English. Dictionary in hand, Uwe translated the folk songs. In them he says discovered America. "Of course you see western movies and Huck Finn and you want to be part of that world," Uwe says. "Music was a way, a path to be part of that world and all the dreams. Music and entertainment are all about illusions, it's about the dreams we have as human beings." So smitten with Americana music, the boys dug deeper. They discovered bluegrass and artists like Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. At 18 and 16, Uwe and Jens took their guitar and banjo and traveled through Europe. They played for handouts in the street and in town squares. They even played Dueling Banjos at a discotheque. The brothers did their own thing for a while, Jens devoting himself to the banjo while Uwe explored all genres of music. In the 90's the brothers reunited, and with American Joel Landsberg on bass, defined their sound as classically infused bluegrass. Think Bach meets Doc Watson. The Kruger Brother's full-time sound engineer, Philip Zanon, takes a reak after setting up a bonfire to mark the end of the second day of the Kruger Brothers Academy. After a dinner of beef tenderloin, asparagus, and Uwe Kruger's"amazing chapignons au creme," the group sat around the fire, drank Bavarian beer, and discussed the weekend's workshops. Photo: Briana Duggan. The band was used to the European audience- one that only wanted the standard bluegrass hits. Upon returning to America to play, Joel Landsberg realized just how different the audiences are. "When we first got here oh we thought we had to play all this traditional stuff and all these traditional bluegrass songs," Landsberg says. "But when we played some of our own music, that's when they really sat up and took notice and said 'Oh! What was that? Do that again. That was beautiful!'" In 2002 the band left Switzerland and moved to Wilkesboro. It was good for business; Switzerland has a pretty small market for bluegrass music. But there was something else - the people. After years of traveling to Wilkesboro for Merlefest, Uwe discovered something within the American people that he hadn't found before. "America, which is so known through the world for being plastic and superficial has a heart that is absolutely genuine and true." Uwe says. "If you want to experience it, you have to come to a place like this." The Kruger's new home is just off one of Wilkesboro's winding country roads. Travel up a long gravel driveway and you will get to their recording studio - a red wooden building, high ceilings, standing alone in the field. It looks like an old country barn. Jens Kruger was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of fame as the 2011 Regional Musician. Here, he discusses why he likes to play music. Listen Inside the studio they've stayed busy. In 2007 they won an award for artistic excellence from the National Endowment for the Arts and last year Jens was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame. This is from 2011's Appalachian Concerto which features the band playing alongside a string quartet. The concerto tells a tale of immigration. It is both the Kruger's story, and a story of the region. Written by Jens, it blends the influences of his two homes -- The traditional Appalachian stylings into a classical, European structure. For the Kruger Brothers, it took leaving Switzerland to find their identity. They are not a bluegrass band, but a blend of both of their homes, American and European. Songs heard in this story are: Watches the Clouds Roll By from the album "Between the Notes" Carolina in the Fall from the album "Up 18 North" Appalachain Concerto from the 2011 album of the same name The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com, Charlotte Viewpoint and UNC-Charlotte to enhance arts coverage in our region.