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“Sometimes we slept in shelters for the homeless. We tied the instruments to our bodies so nobody could steal them.” 

Jens Krüger

Jens Krüger

BIRKENSTORY #30 Jens and Uwe Krüger – Swiss bluegrass virtuosos in North Carolina

Every evening, the parents joined the two boys in their bedroom and told them bedtime stories, played the guitar and accordion and they sang songs together. Jens and Uwe, who perform as a trio with their bassist Joel Landsberg, are the “Kruger Brothers” – the bluegrass and new American folk music icons are known all around the world. From early on, the brothers from Switzerland lost their hearts to American folk music. Since 2002, they’ve been living in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  

Born in 1960 and 1962 respectively, they had a peaceful childhood in the countryside of Switzerland. The love from their parents and especially playing music together as a family meant they had a wonderful and carefree start into life. Already when they were little, Jens and Uwe were fascinated by music. Uwe remembers: “All we wanted to do was to make music and to play the guitar together – that’s all we ever wanted.” A regular guitar has six strings which the brothers shared: one of them plucked the upper three, the other the lower three. Jens: “We didn’t really make proper music. But it was fun to make sounds with it!”

But they practised and became good. Very good even. Already in 1974, they started their first band.

Born in 1960 and 1962 respectively, they had a peaceful childhood in the countryside of Switzerland. The love from their parents and especially playing music together as a family meant they had a wonderful and carefree start into life. Already when they were little, Jens and Uwe were fascinated by music. Uwe remembers: “All we wanted to do was to make music and to play the guitar together – that’s all we ever wanted.” A regular guitar has six strings which the brothers shared: one of them plucked the upper three, the other the lower three. Jens: “We didn’t really make proper music. But it was fun to make sounds with it!”

But they practised and became good. Very good even. Already in 1974, they started their first band.

A painful turning point

The sudden death of their mother changed everything. “Jens was eleven, I was thirteen. That was a big changing point because that really broke our dad,” explains Uwe. “It was the beginning of the end. He just didn’t come to grips with that.” In November 1979, there was another argument with their father. Jens and Uwe finally had enough and left their hometown at the ages of 16 and 18. They grabbed their sleeping bags, the guitar, the banjo and 50 Swiss francs and took the train to Zurich where they slept down by the lake. They started to play music on the streets. For both, this was an “incredible feeling of relief”. 

The sudden death of their mother changed everything. “Jens was eleven, I was thirteen. That was a big changing point because that really broke our dad,” explains Uwe. “It was the beginning of the end. He just didn’t come to grips with that.” In November 1979, there was another argument with their father. Jens and Uwe finally had enough and left their hometown at the ages of 16 and 18. They grabbed their sleeping bags, the guitar, the banjo and 50 Swiss francs and took the train to Zurich where they slept down by the lake. They started to play music on the streets. For both, this was an “incredible feeling of relief”. 

Their mode of operation: always the last train, as far away as possible

That’s how they became part of Berlin’s scene of street musicians. “English, Irish, Americans, Canadians – and we were the kids”, laughs Jens. From there, they went all over Europe: Munich in the morning, with the night train to Milan, on to Paris, then Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Vienna. Their mode of operation: the latest train the farthest away. Night trains had one major benefit: they didn’t have to pay for a place to sleep that night. Jens goes on: “At some point we knew where the showers were in every railway station ...!”  

That’s how they became part of Berlin’s scene of street musicians. “English, Irish, Americans, Canadians – and we were the kids”, laughs Jens. From there, they went all over Europe: Munich in the morning, with the night train to Milan, on to Paris, then Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Vienna. Their mode of operation: the latest train the farthest away. Night trains had one major benefit: they didn’t have to pay for a place to sleep that night. Jens goes on: “At some point we knew where the showers were in every railway station ...!”  

The streets as their playground

For Jens, who already wanted to play the banjo 12 hours a day as a young boy, this was the perfect life. Uwe also loved this newly found freedom: “We played blues with African-Americans and reggae with a Jamaican. It was like a wonderful playground.” They lived like this for almost three years. They usually had a place to sleep somewhere – a cheap hotel, a friend’s couch or somebody’s attic. 

Sometimes they also slept in shelters for the homeless, tried their instruments to their bodies so that nobody could steal them. 

For Jens, who already wanted to play the banjo 12 hours a day as a young boy, this was the perfect life. Uwe also loved this newly found freedom: “We played blues with African-Americans and reggae with a Jamaican. It was like a wonderful playground.” They lived like this for almost three years. They usually had a place to sleep somewhere – a cheap hotel, a friend’s couch or somebody’s attic. 

Sometimes they also slept in shelters for the homeless, tried their instruments to their bodies so that nobody could steal them. 

Finding a new style – and crossing the pond

When he was only 22, Jens already played in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, country music’s holy grail and one of the most famous music stages in America. The legendary Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass”, encouraged Jens to create his own music. This also greatly influenced Uwe’s guitar style and together they created their own new style – the Kruger Brothers’ style. In the early 90s they already had their own radio show in Switzerland, the “Kruger Brothers’ Radio Show”.  

1997 was the first time they were invited to the MerleFest, one of the most important country and bluegrass festivals in the USA. Known as the Mecca for country and bluegrass lovers, thousands make their pilgrimage to the four-day event every year. They first thought it would be a one-off gig. But the audience took a liking to the brothers right from the start and they were invited back every single year.  

Songs like “Carolina in the Fall” made them popular bluegrass musicians all over America. And at one point, when they had collected 56 entry stamps from the USA in their passports within five years, they decided to move there once and for all. 

Jens and Uwe soon made a name for themselves in the US and played with legends like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and many others. Soon after, they were invited to television shows, for example to David Letterman, probably the most famous late-night show in the USA.  

When he was only 22, Jens already played in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, country music’s holy grail and one of the most famous music stages in America. The legendary Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass”, encouraged Jens to create his own music. This also greatly influenced Uwe’s guitar style and together they created their own new style – the Kruger Brothers’ style. In the early 90s they already had their own radio show in Switzerland, the “Kruger Brothers’ Radio Show”.  

1997 was the first time they were invited to the MerleFest, one of the most important country and bluegrass festivals in the USA. Known as the Mecca for country and bluegrass lovers, thousands make their pilgrimage to the four-day event every year. They first thought it would be a one-off gig. But the audience took a liking to the brothers right from the start and they were invited back every single year.  

Songs like “Carolina in the Fall” made them popular bluegrass musicians all over America. And at one point, when they had collected 56 entry stamps from the USA in their passports within five years, they decided to move there once and for all. 

Jens and Uwe soon made a name for themselves in the US and played with legends like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and many others. Soon after, they were invited to television shows, for example to David Letterman, probably the most famous late-night show in the USA.  

Whatever happens: stay humble

Once, they played in front of the whole entourage of Johnny Cash, who was performing in Switzerland at that time. Uwe remembers: “There were the three of us and we played for these country music icons. They were like gods. During a break, Johnny Cash’s wife, June Carter, came over and said `Uwe, why do we always have to fly all the way to Switzerland to listen to proper country music?'  She knew that we were nervous. And she knew that by saying that, we would feel better and lose our fear”. This was a moment Jens and Uwe would never forget and they knew: “These are good people. We want to be like them!” It was not about singing or playing like these stars “but to become a person who does exactly that. The really good ones are always humble!” 

Once, they played in front of the whole entourage of Johnny Cash, who was performing in Switzerland at that time. Uwe remembers: “There were the three of us and we played for these country music icons. They were like gods. During a break, Johnny Cash’s wife, June Carter, came over and said `Uwe, why do we always have to fly all the way to Switzerland to listen to proper country music?'  She knew that we were nervous. And she knew that by saying that, we would feel better and lose our fear”. This was a moment Jens and Uwe would never forget and they knew: “These are good people. We want to be like them!” It was not about singing or playing like these stars “but to become a person who does exactly that. The really good ones are always humble!” 

How Jens and Uwe discovered Birkenstocks

Uwe told us how he got his first pair of Birkenstocks: “In 1995 we moved to a pretty little house in Switzerland. And I found an old pair of Birkenstocks. I just slipped them on – maybe to learn something about the previous owner – and they fit perfectly. I’ve been wearing them ever since. I’m on my third pair. I believe in Birkenstocks - also because of my bad knees. I love them because they’re easy to take care of. My dog hates them. But that’s a good thing because then he won’t eat them.” 

Jens caught up later: “I never had the money to buy them. But when my kids wanted Birkenstocks, I also bought a pair for myself. I love wearing them. They fit my feet perfectly and give them room to breathe. They’re simply very comfortable, I also wear them out on the street. I actually always wear them, whenever possible. And Uwe and I both wear them with socks.” 

Uwe told us how he got his first pair of Birkenstocks: “In 1995 we moved to a pretty little house in Switzerland. And I found an old pair of Birkenstocks. I just slipped them on – maybe to learn something about the previous owner – and they fit perfectly. I’ve been wearing them ever since. I’m on my third pair. I believe in Birkenstocks - also because of my bad knees. I love them because they’re easy to take care of. My dog hates them. But that’s a good thing because then he won’t eat them.” 

Jens caught up later: “I never had the money to buy them. But when my kids wanted Birkenstocks, I also bought a pair for myself. I love wearing them. They fit my feet perfectly and give them room to breathe. They’re simply very comfortable, I also wear them out on the street. I actually always wear them, whenever possible. And Uwe and I both wear them with socks.” 

Two brothers: they can't live with each other, and they can't live without each other

“We have nothing to do with each other intellectually. It’s like cat and dog,” laughs Jens. “The only thing we have in common is that we both wear Birkenstocks”. Both say that, apart from the Birkenstocks, they’re radically different people and are never of the same opinion. That’s something they can agree on… 

“On a deep level I think we really do love each other,” says Jens. And when we’re on stage, we both know that we’re doing the right thing. 

“We have nothing to do with each other intellectually. It’s like cat and dog,” laughs Jens. “The only thing we have in common is that we both wear Birkenstocks”. Both say that, apart from the Birkenstocks, they’re radically different people and are never of the same opinion. That’s something they can agree on… 

“On a deep level I think we really do love each other,” says Jens. And when we’re on stage, we both know that we’re doing the right thing. 

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