Sept. 05--The Kruger Brothers were perplexed the first year they were invited to play MerleFest, the roots music festival started by guitarist Doc Watson and held each year in North Carolina.
The trio, brothers Uwe and Jens Kruger and bassist Joel Landsberg, was well known in Switzerland and around Europe for their folk and bluegrass chops. But they felt an invite to play in the states was like importing olives to Athens, Greece.
"We never thought we would go to America with our music," Jens, the younger brother and banjo player, said in a phone interview last week. "Why would they get banjos and guitars from Europe and bring them to North Carolina? It seemed strange."
Despite their confusion, they accepted the invitation and performed their first show as a group in the U.S. on the MerleFest stage in 1997.
The Kruger brothers have since relocated to North Carolina. They make the majority of their living bringing their own brand of folk and bluegrass to cities across the United States.
The group plays the Vail Theatre of the Arts next Thursday. It will be the band's first visit to the Tucson area.
"We are looking forward to the new experience," Jens said.
Raised in Switzerland, Uwe and Jens grew up around music.
Their mother was a kindergarten teacher and amateur accordion player. Their father played guitar.
The family sat around singing German folk songs in the evening after work -- the family hailed from Germany originally -- providing Uwe and Jens with countless hours of entertainment.
They were influenced early on by the sounds coming from the United States.
"When we heard American folk music, we thought it was super cool," Jens said. "We would read the books of Samuel Clemens and they would be playing banjos and guitars. People were having a good time together. We wanted to be part of that community."
The Kruger brothers started their first band in fourth grade, a skiffle group in the same vein as Scottish musician Lonnie Donegan.
When Jens turned 17, the brothers left home to become full-time street musicians. They backpacked around Europe, singing for their supper.
"We had good fun," Jens said. "We met interesting people. It was a good school. You had to really play for your money, but you could stand on any corner and make enough to get by."
By the time the MerleFest invite rolled around, The Kruger Brothers were well established in Switzerland. They had a national radio show and a recording contract. The decision to move to America came a few years after their debut .
"Business was so strong here for us," Jens said. "We were making more money touring here than in Europe."
They settled in Wilkesboro, N.C. in 2002, a central location along the Atlantic Coastin an area that was home to a variety of talented musicians, including their friend Watson.
The Kruger brothers and Landsberg became close friends with Watson. They would often back the legendary musician at concerts and were among a handful of artists tapped to perform at his funeral after his death in May 2012. They played at Watson's wife Rosa Lee Carlton's funeral a few months later.
"He was a genuine, warm-hearted, honest good man," Jens said.
The Kruger brothers released the album, "Remembering Doc Watson" in April to honor their friend. Jens said they might play a Watson tune or two at the show.
They'll weave those tracks in with mostly original works, showcasing the group's range.
Jens has long been hailed as a talented composer.
When he isn't performing bluegrass standards, he is creating works for symphony orchestras.
After Tucson, the group will head north to perform with members of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra as part of the city's Pickin' in the Pines Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Festival.
Jens said the group's performance in Tucson will include songs from the 21 albums its members have recorded over the years.
"It has been a great journey coming to this country," he said.
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