When he was a young banjo player, Jens Kruger lived with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.
Kruger had admired Monroe from afar; he grew up in Switzerland with his brother, Uwe, listening to bluegrass. Now, as a promising young artist venturing into America, Monroe had taken him under his wing after hearing him play at a festival. Kruger stayed with the icon, even getting to play with him at the Grand Ole Opry.
At one point, Monroe asked Kruger what he wanted to do in life. Kruger told him that he wanted to play bluegrass. Monroe said, "Don't do that. You're not from Kentucky."
"You need to play the music that's within you," he told him.
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About 30 years later, Jens and Uwe Kruger are playing bluegrass -- but not really. It's not Kentucky bluegrass, like Monroe and others played. It's Swiss bluegrass, if that's such a thing. Really, it doesn't neatly fit into a genre. Put simply, it's The Kruger Brothers.
The trio plays at Street Music on Paris Avenue Sept. 22.
Their style is American roots music from a European perspective. Growing up, the Kruger family didn't watch television at night. They played music. They listened to music. They knew classical pieces, bluegrass, the Grateful Dead.
Jens and Uwe traveled throughout Europe as teenagers as the Rocky Road Band, the name an homage to the downhome feel of the American music they worshipped. Jens left in 1982 to come to the States (where he lived with Monroe for the summer, according to his blog), but returned four years later to form a group with his brother.
While touring Europe, they met a New York bassist. Joel Landsberg quickly developed a friendship with Jens and Uwe and became an unofficial sibling. The Kruger Brothers became a trio. Coming into the group, Landsberg said he had a steep learning curve to catch up to the brothers' lifetime of musical chemistry.
"It was challenging, musically," he said. "You have to be on your toes at all times. You have to adapt quickly."
The Kruger Brothers launched their American career in 1997 at MerleFest -- a festival of American roots music -- and their popularity has steadily grown since. In recent years, they've pushed American roots music into new territory with works such as the "The Spirit of the Rockies," a commission piece inspired by the Canadian Rockies. It drew on European and American musical traditions by combining the trio with a chamber orchestra.
"We're constantly trying to push the envelope," Landsberg said. "We're not a traditional bluegrass band. We're trying to open the ears of audiences."