Sometimes, all it takes is determined devotion to live a life that finds meaning in music. That’s what it took for the Wortmann Brothers, Frank and Ulrich, to turn their attention to bluegrass. Early on, the German siblings shared a parallel existence, which was really no surprise considering that the pair have only two years difference in their ages. Born in the city of Bielefeld, located in East Westphalia, a region situated in the northeastern part of Germany near the North Sea, they pursued similar career paths even early on. They each joined their country’s armed forces after high school and subsequently resumed their studies at Westphalian Wilhelm University in Münster. Older brother Frank mastered in classics and philosophy while Ulrich gained his PhD in chemistry. These days, both brothers teach high school and lead otherwise average lives, both as married men.
That might be an otherwise ordinary tale were it not for the fact that early on they happened to witness a performance by a local skiffle band that featured a banjo player, leading them to hone a down-home discipline that initially seemed somewhat out of sync with the traditions they had been infused with early on.
Nevertheless, their own instincts took over, fed by an ever-increasing desire to further their bond with bluegrass. They invested in an Italian-made Eko banjo and a Framus guitar and started listening to some seminal sounds that helped stir their interest even more — the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a 1973 recording from Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, J.D. Crowes Blackjack album, various recordings by Bill Keith, and all the early collaborations and solo projects by Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick, Andy Statman, and Russ Barenberg.
“We ended up becoming faithful bluegrass traditionalists,” Frank explains. “If it ain’t got a banjo… well, you get the picture.”
The picture becomes clearer as Wortmann describes how the band that he and his brother founded came into being. “We had a jazz-influenced classmate on double bass — originally a tenor banjo player — and a Vassar Clements-admiring student playing fiddle,” he relates. “We did some gigs with them until our duties in the service led to our departure.”
Later, Frank and Ulrich formed another band, simply dubbed the Wortmann Brothers. It finds Frank playing guitar and mandolin, (“Unfortunately, my fiddle skills just didn’t get better,” he confesses) and Ulrich taking on banjo duties. Two friends, who happen to be a married couple, provide further support with bass and mandolin.
“Melodically, we mostly cover standard bluegrass material, but we prefer to sing in German,” Franks explains. “My brother writes all the lyrics, which are not necessarily related to the originals, but rather tell stories in a German musical tradition known as ‘’Neue Hamburger Schule.’ Basically, it’s a form of ’80s pop literature. We share our music on Zoom and using our I-pads. The results took YouTube by storm.”
(According to Wikipedia, the term Frank refers to, “The Hamburger Schule” (a German expression meaning ‘Hamburg School’), was a popular movement in Germany during the 1980s and early 1990s which promoted the use of the German language as a means of expression in popular music.)
The Wortmann Brothers mostly perform in their local environs, primarily in “Taverns and churches, university clubs and bars,” Frank explains. “In other words, in big venues,” he adds somewhat sardonically. “The Last time Germans went beserk was one-and-a-half thousand years ago.”
Hmmm, we’re not quite sure if that’s a good thing, or merely a statement about what it takes to inspire local enthusiasm. At any rate, Frank has a somewhat clearer response when he’s asked what it is about bluegrass that translates so well as an international language. “It’s acoustic, improvised, driving, and sad,” he suggests. It appears that those adjectives sum up the Wortmann Brothers’ appeal as well.