At a glance, The Kruger Brothers are a curiosity, if not a gimmick. Two Swiss siblings and a former New Yorker living in North Carolina perform progressively minded, classically conscious folk that's rooted in American tradition but flairs wildly with disparate influences.
"I played on Broadway and played everything from funk and soul to R&B and disco, but I never played American roots or bluegrass music until I actually moved over to Europe," explains Joel Landsberg, the New York-born bassist who moved to Switzerland with his then-wife, a Swiss native, in 1989.
Landsberg trained under the legendary jazz bassist Milt Hinton during college, but after he crossed the Atlantic he began playing as a sideman in a variety of musical circles. Guitarist Uwe Kruger and banjoist Jens Kruger played in the same pockets. Landsberg estimates that the three were collectively playing in 17 different bands at one point.
"The music scene was so small over there," he explains, "and there weren't that many capable musicians."
After performing together in a Broadway-style musical in 1995, Landsberg and the Krugers dropped their other gigs to focus solely on the trio that became The Kruger Brothers. The band initially adhered to traditional American roots flavors, focusing largely on a grist of country, country-rock and bluegrass. Back then, Landsberg says, there was a large audience for those styles in Europe.
"The country music scene in Europe was quite big up until the first Gulf War," he explains, pointing to the negative effect that the anti-Americanism associated with Operation Desert Storm had on that market. Some fans dressed in full Wild West cowboy garb, down to the leather boots and gun belts. "It was quite an amazing scene for a while there. Every little town used to have a country festival, but after the Gulf War that all kind of fell apart."
That early American influence soon yielded a bit, allowing the Krugers to incorporate elements of European folk into their music with increasing frequency. Their traditionalist mentality gave way, too. "Growing up in Europe, people are much more exposed to classical music and all the different styles of European folk music from all the different countries," Landsberg says, noting the similar effects his own classically minded parents had on his musical mind. "It's a much more diversified pool that you can draw from."
Despite the growing European influence, the members relocated to North Wilkesboro—home of Merlefest, where the band made its American performance debut in 1997. The roots community stateside embraced the group both before and after the 2003 move. Bill Monroe had mentored Jens in the early '80s; since the move, they've joined luminaries like Earl Scruggs, Willie Nelson and Ricky Skaggs. When he plays local gigs, Doc Watson continues to ask the Krugers to sit in.
Since the move, the Krugers have used roots music as a launching point for their own unique style. They've incorporated a symphonic quality, too, composing a seamless suite of pieces for 2007's The Suite, Volume One. That was the first step toward last year's more fully realized Appalachian Concerto, which added a string quartet to the mix. Both nominally and stylistically, Concerto explores similar ground as the Appalachian-themed collaborations among Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma and others. Landsberg gives partial credit for the Krugers' musical growth to the close dynamic between the members, which manifests itself in the trio's nonverbal communication when performing.
"When you're working with brothers, there's that unspoken bond that's just so much tighter and intense," Landsberg observes. "They've been making music together since they were 5 or 6 years old. To work into that dynamic takes a long time, but we've been together for a long time now."