The Kruger Brothers at the May 2018 Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival – photo by Frank Baker
After six weeks off, three surgeries and two hospital stays, banjo stylist Jens Kruger is back on the road with the Kruger Brothers.
Their day-night doubleheader of shows Friday at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival came on the first road trip for Kruger since kidney problems were discovered earlier this year. (He did play with the trio at MerleFest late last month, but that was a short car ride from the band’s Wilkesboro, NC, base.)
“It’s great to be back,” Kruger said after the band’s afternoon set on a rainy afternoon. Though he showed no physical signs of his illness, he said the anesthesia and two surgeries left him with “some mental holes” that are gradually improving.
There was no sign of that on stage, where Jens, brother and guitarist Uwe Kruger, and bassist Joel Landsburg played with the understated elegance that fans have come to expect, seamlessly weaving bluegrass and folk themes with melodic passages rooted in jazz and classical.
Kruger tried to stay upbeat when a growth was discovered on a kidney, but the outlook wasn’t exactly rosy.
“There was a small chance of a lucky outcome,” Kruger said backstage Friday afternoon, stopping his absentminded noodling on the five-string to underscore the gravity of what he was saying. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
The tumor that doctors removed, along with part of a kidney, was benign. Still the treatment and recovery were arduous. In addition to multiple surgeries and the pair of hospitalizations, there was a month of nurse-assisted care at home to change his dressings.
In his typical, unassuming fashion, Kruger said the most difficult part wasn’t his discomfort, but rather disappointing fans and his fellow bandmates by not being able to play. The biggest regret was having to pull the plug on a series of European concerts in April. Thousands of tickets had been sold, and only about 100 refunds have been requested for the rescheduled shows in January.
Still, Kruger frets about not being able to play as scheduled.
“It’s really bad for a musician to put so many people on hold,” he said with a grimace. “There’s nothing I could do about it, but I feel bad.”
Kruger, winner of the 2013 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo, has always embraced the intellectual side of an instrument that has a mainstream reputation as the symbol of “hillbilly” music. And Friday was no exception. Our 20-minute discussion was laced with detours into the weeds of music theory and songwriting. (His advice to songwriters could actually apply to a broad spectrum of creative opportunities: “Don’t wait for something to happen” to inspire you. “It won’t.) There was also humor, albeit with a classical twist. The subject of his jokes, at least on that day, wasn’t the banjo. It was the cello!
Kruger puts on no airs. When he was finally able to get out of the house, he decided to celebrate with a steak – at the local Outback. Then it was back to work, writing and arranging new material for the trio and, occasionally, quartet, and starting work on an orchestra commission.
Kruger is widely praised for meshing elements of folk music and bluegrass with classical compositions. But he is quick to shrug off such praise, saying that classical giants such as Bartok, Brahams and Tchaikovsky blazed the trail long before him.
He’s just a musician, he said.
And a very lucky guy.