Kruger Brothers’ “Best of the Kruger Brothers”

Liner notes from the Kruger Brothers’ 2012 release, Best of the Kruger Brothers

best of

In the liner notes to the album Forever and a Day Uwe wrote that, “When we began our career in 1975, nothing could have prepared us for the journey that lay ahead.” As we approach the 40th anniversary of that beginning, it is difficult to comprehend the full extent of what is, by any measure, a truly remarkable journey.

We see glimpses of it from time to time. Jens mentions writing music in a castle tower in Switzerland; the song “Carolina in the Fall” tells about the move to the United States. Somewhere in there they hosted a national radio show in Switzerland, Uwe and Joel played at the launch of Microsoft Windows 95, Jens updated the design of the Deering banjo line, they were awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, hosted an annual music festival, established a recording company, collaborated with a ballet troupe, and most recently have received a commission from the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. They also found opportunities to realize some things that, at one point, would have seemed like unattainable dreams, such as playing on stage with childhood heroes, Doc Watson, Bobby Hicks, and Bill Monroe.

Theirs is a career that has traced a remarkable arc, from a couple of rag-tag musicians busking for spare change in Munich’s Marienplatz, to an international trio playing with symphonies and in concert halls throughout North America and Europe. There are now 15 albums under the Kruger Brothers name, presenting everything from traditional clawhammer tunes to a collaboration with a classical string quartet.

But of course all of those things are really just moments, stops along the way, not the journey itself. When Uwe talks about the journey, he is speaking of those moments, but he’s also speaking of the musical adventure that connects them and provides a context for them; for Uwe, Jens, and since 1995, Joel Landsberg, it has been a consistent path of creativity and discovery. And with that perspective in mind, all of the various moments recede a bit and begin to appear a little less unlikely. These are three musicians who have simply followed their musical curiosity, one discovery leading quite naturally to the next. In so doing, they’ve also shown that the distance between some musical ideas isn’t nearly as great as it might seem, such as the distance between traditional Appalachian folk music and classical music.

As Joel has said about their work as recording artists and performers, they often feel that their role is to share their discoveries with their audiences, as if saying “look at this, look at what we found.” This collection comes from that same place. Each track is a moment, some of them from some time ago, such as “Cork Harbor” and “Alabama Bound,” while others are more recent, such as “The Lights of Our Village” and “People Get Ready.” If they look disparate, this collection shows that, in fact, they really aren’t. All were guided by the same hands, by the same curiosities, and in so doing they all help to tell the larger story of the Kruger Brothers.

This summer, with a premiere at the Banff Centre, the journey continues into new territory, geographically, musically, and collaboratively. And, for the Kruger Brothers, there’s nothing surprising about that at all.

Song Notes

Watches the Clouds Roll By 5:42 Between the Notes
We’ve all had the experience at one point or another; time marches on, but once in a while, for whatever reason, it seems to stop. Maybe we’re staring out a classroom window or wiping our brow after a day’s work in the hot sun. This song captures those moments in life when, despite it all, we find ourselves noticing the clouds as they pass by. And we watch them.

Black Mountain Rag 3:25 Choices
One of Doc Watson’s signature songs, this recording is as much a tribute to him as it is a celebration of such a great piece of music.

People Get Ready 7:08 previously unreleased
Written by Curtis Mayfield, this song reached #3 for the Inspirations on the Billboard charts in March, 1965. Uwe calls it a “train song” and it is, and a lot more too. And since Mayfield wrote it, it’s been recorded by gospel, rock, reggae, R&B, a cappella, and jazz artists. The song has been a staple of Kruger Brothers’ concerts for the last few years, and Uwe brings a character to it that is all his own and uses it to deliver a message that is all his own as well.

Carolina in the Fall 3:34 Up 18 North
An early example of the Kruger Brothers’ song writing, “Carolina in the Fall” has all the hallmarks of the very resonant and mature writing that they continue to this day. It’s deeply personal, relating some of the feelings associated with their move to Carolina from Switzerland in 2003. It hits a common nerve, namely that longing to be home, no matter where home might be.

The Plan 3:01 Forever and a Day
Ah, the plans we make when we’re young! When we look back, do we view those plans as immature, or do we long for those freedoms once again? As much as we might judge the young person we once were, the chorus captures the energy and verve of youth, that time in our lives before things became, perhaps, a bit more complicated.

Cork Harbor 3:30 The Bridge
“Cork Harbor” was released in 1999 when the band was still based in Switzerland and is an early example of the very broad range of musical styles that they draw from.

The Lights in Our Village 2:33 Christmas Magic
It’s an original but seems cut from the same cloth as any great Christmas song. Peaceful, quiet, reflective. And when it’s the season, it’s a perfect antidote to the shopping malls, reminding us of some of the other things that make the season special.

Forever and a Day 4:23 Forever and a Day
When a parent leaves, can the space can ever be filled?

Beautiful Nothing 4:27 Between the Notes
It’s a cliché to say that music is as much about sound as it is the absence of sound, in turn making it easy to overlook how true the idea is. This piece began simply as an exercise in sustain—making the banjo ring—which Jens presented in a workshop near Boston. He then built it out, though has said that he was unsure if it was the kind of piece that could really reach an audience. Undoubtedly, it did. Today, this is one of the most requested pieces in the Kruger Brothers repertoire.

Choices 3:47 Choices
This song has been recorded twice by the Kruger Brothers, once for the album of the same name and once within The Suite. It’s a presentation of a central idea for the Kruger Brothers, and one they revisit in a number of their songs.

The New Country 5:04 Appalachian Concerto
The Appalachian Concerto was a very different kind of recording for the Kruger Brothers and signalled an important departure into some new areas of musical composition and collaboration. Written in the format of a string quartet, it is built around a narrative of immigration. Filled with various voices and  moods, this last movement of the concerto, fittingly, bristles with all the pride and confidence of a fireworks display on the Fourth of July.

Winterport 5:01 The Suite
The Suite, the collection from which this track was taken, was a milestone in the Kruger Brothers’ recording history. It was the first time they recorded an entire album of original material, and also the first album to be structured as a coherent whole, and hence the title. The album highlights the uniqueness of the Krugers’ music, of which “Winterport” remains such a fantastic example.

Long Black Veil 5:34 Carolina Scrapbook Vol. I
First recorded by Lefty Frizzel in 1959, “Long Black Veil” later made the pop charts in versions by the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez. The story of the song is famously told by a man who is falsely accused of murder but who refuses to offer an alibi in order to protect a lover and a friend. Uwe has said, “I always thought the song was being played too fast, considering the (dead) singer has all the time of eternity at his disposal. So  we play it slooow.”

Alabama Bound 3:48 Travel the Gravel
In “Carolina in the Fall” Uwe sings “Now for thirty years I’ve played the songs that Doc has taught to me.” This song, “Alabama Bound,” is one of them. Written in 1909 as a rag, the version here recalls the arrangement that Doc Watson created for his 1971 release, Ballads from Deep Gap. It  has long been in Kruger Brothers repertoire, and there is a video of them playing it on a national evening variety program in Switzerland called “Top of Switzerland.”

Honey Babe Blues 4:21 Carolina Scrapbook Vol. II
This is another song from Doc Watson’s repertoire and one that comes from a very early recording he did with Clarence “Tom” Ashley for the Folkways label. At the time of that recording, Doc was relatively unknown, though that wasn’t to last long. Through those sessions for Folkways he met Ralph Rinzler, who then brought Watson to the attention of a national audience.

Sweden / Running Down the Mountain 2:44 Carolina Scrapbook Vol. II/Profile
Clint Howard, a great friend to the Kruger Brothers, passed away in 2011. Here he tries to recall the name of a country in Europe, most likely from an experience he had touring there with Doc Watson in 1960s. Ever humble, Howard was an important link to the music and the musicians of Appalachia. He’d also find this recording as humorous as we do. Here, his words preface a great example of perhaps the very core of Jens’ playing, a bluegrass breakdown performed just as a breakdown should be: full of life and exuberance.

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