Tristan Scroggins reports from Bluegrass Jamboree

Jeff Scroggins & Colorado playing in a barn turned venue from the middle ages
in Ravensburg in a picture captured by Kalia Yeagle

This report from the ongoing Bluegrass Jamboree tour is a contribution from Tristan Scroggins, mandolinist with Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, one of the three US bands entertaining German audiences during the 2018 tour.

Greetings from Berlin!

We’ve been in Germany for two weeks now as part of the Bluegrass Jamboree package tour and tonight we’re playing our twelfth show in a row. This is the Jamboree’s 10th annual tour and has alumni including Michael Cleveland, Town Mountain, Della Mae, and Gabe Hirschfield. Each night, three bands perform in a different town. First up are the Brother Brothers, a brother duet with bluegrass roots featuring striking harmonies and powerful original songs, followed by Bill & The Belles, an old time country group with new, original material, and my band, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, a traditional bluegrass band with a highly personal take on tradition.

We all get up at the end of the night and our joined by the tour’s producer, Rainer Zellner, a good mandolin player himself, for a few final numbers together. Rainer, along with his wife, Ille, keep things running from their station at the front of the “Banjo Bus” which drives us all over the country.

So far we’ve played mostly in the South and West in venues big and small but always for excited and engaged audiences. One of our favorites was our show in Schlitz (where the beer came from before Americans changed the recipe). We played at a hall in a music school in a beautiful town full of colorful exposed-beam buildings. During our time off we followed the cobblestone roads up to the castle at the top of town, where one of the towers had been completely covered with red cloth and adorned with a decorative flame to make it the tallest Christmas candle in Germany.

This rivaled the tallest Christmas tree in Germany which we saw at the Christmas market in Dortmund on our first night. The Christmas markets are ubiquitous wherever we go. These outdoor markets offer many homemade goods and regional foods sold out of small booths. We’ve consumed a lot of bread, sausage, and hot mulled wine. My favorite was the market in Ulm which was situated underneath the tower of the largest cathedral in the world. Many others enjoyed last night’s market in Dresden. It’s proximity to the Czech Republic brought in more unique crafts and foods such as Trdelník, a bread covered in cinnamon and sugar, wrapped around a wooden dowel, and slow baked rotisserie-style over coals.

Our show in Dresden was interesting as well. We played in Dreikönigskirche, a church that was destroyed during the bombing of Dresden towards the end of WWII. Nearly 80 percent of the city was destroyed, but the baroque altar remained intact, and a new church was built around it. The giant, beautiful hall made the Brother Brothers’ harmonies even more ethereal than usual. When they sing its like they are sharing one set of vocal chords. And while their harmonies are reminiscent of the Delmore Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, or even Simon and Garfunkel, their music, which is mostly original, feels both very familiar and yet very modern, often commenting on social issues of the day. Though they usually travel with other instruments, twin brothers David and Adam Moss are stripped down to only guitar, fiddle, and voice, delivering a powerfully raw but cosmically in-sync show each night.

Similarly, Bill and the Belles have been delivering performances that sound amazingly like live recordings from and old radio show. Kris Truelsen, host and head conspirator behind the revival of the Farm and Fun Time radio show in Bristol, VA, has managed to write songs and even jingles that are relevant today, but seem like they easily could have been written 60 years ago. Their bouncy rhythms and airy harmonies transport you through both time and space, while the driving fiddle and banjo of Kalia Yeagle and Grace Van’t Hof glue audiences to the edges of their seats. Andrew Small joins them on bass providing a solid foundation, humor, and occasionally twin old-time fiddle.

Since I play with Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, I’m not sure how to say how good it sounds without tooting my own horn, but I do think that it sounds like good bluegrass, as always. We’re playing a lot of material from our new CD coming out in January, and my Dad is still trying to get used to the Grundy banjo he just picked up during his tour in Australia. Greg Blake is a vocal powerhouse, as always, and Ellie Hakanson has been singing more lead as she does on the new record. Nico Humby is with us from Canada and often rounds out the four-part harmonies on Gospel numbers, but also delivers entertaining lead singing. I’ve been working on crosspicking a lot and have been trying to shoehorn that in as much as I can.

Performers reading this will appreciate that we have one of the best sound engineers I’ve ever worked with traveling with us. Daniel Machnik runs the sound so well that we hardly even notice we’re playing into mics – though we imagine he’s bored since all three bands essentially use the same two Ear Trumpet mics for the whole evening. Even the sound checks seem like a formality.

We’ve mostly been passing the time by playing cards and trying to exercise when we can. While near the southern border, Nico and Kris went on a run that took them through both Switzerland and France.

Today we’re playing at a theater in Berlin that’s across the street from one of the oldest airports in Europe, which was decommissioned in 2008 and turned into a recreational space. The Brother Brothers played on Deutschlandfunk Kultur radio today to promote the show. The radio station was created after the second World War, and during the Cold War served as the voice of the German Democratic Republic, broadcasting western music and news into East Germany.

We’ve been driving and playing everyday so there hasn’t been much time for sightseeing, but we did manage a trip to the Haribo outlet and picked up a bunch of candy to bring home for Christmas.

We still have eleven shows left so we’ll check back in at the end of the tour! Be sure to follow us all on Facebook and Instagram for more pictures and updates.