Article Published: Sep. 12, 2013 | Modified: Sep. 12, 2013
One of the higher profile honors in bluegrass music is the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
Created four years ago by renowned actor, comedian and musician Steve Martin, the honorees who have been given the award and its $50,000 prize money include Noam Pikelny, Sammy Shelor and Mark Johnson.
On Friday, Sept. 6, a favorite musician of the High Country region, Jens Krüger of The Krüger Brothers, received a package at his house in North Wilkesboro. In it were a check and letter telling him that he is the 2014 winner of the Martin Prize.
The award is given out by the Steve Martin Charitable Foundation, based on the recommendation of an all-star voting committee, which consists of Martin, Bela Fleck, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Neil V. Rosenberg and Alison Brown. With all of the winners to date, the honoree has followed up the award announcement with an appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” with Martin.
In 1982, Krüger came to the United States and spent several months mentoring under the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, in Nashville, Tenn. But eventually, he went back to his native Switzerland. In the 1990s, after forming The Krüger Brothers with his brother, Uwe, and bassist Joel Landsberg, Krüger was offered the chance to perform at MerleFest due to the urging of a well-established American musician.
“When we were invited to MerleFest in 1997 as The Krüger Brothers, we never thought that we’d actually play in America,” Krüger said. “A friend of ours in Switzerland came to visit MerleFest, and he gave some tapes to the organizers there, like B Townes and the Shepherd family. But that was not the initial thing that made it happen, because they get a lot of tapes from all over the world. Ron Block, who is the banjo player for Alison Krauss, he saw us play in Switzerland because we opened up for Alison in the early 1990s. At one point, B Townes of MerleFest asked Ron, ‘What do you think of these guys? Have you heard of these Krüger Brothers?’ Supposedly Ron just said, ‘Just book them.’
“So, when I played here at my first MerleFest, I was invited to play with Ricky Skaggs, so the acceptance of my playing was instantaneous. But I was a stranger. People thought, ‘Well, maybe he is just going back to Switzerland. He’s just coming here for two or three shows.’
“Then we had so many requests to play that we just decided to start our career over here. After five years of touring, we decided that either we move here or we don’t come back. I had children at home in Switzerland, and I spent so much time in America. At one point, we moved with my wife and two daughters, my brother, Uwe, and Joel, as well as Phillip, our sound engineer who was working with us. We all moved here to focus on our career in America because we could play our own music and we had enough of an audience.”
That is how The Krüger Brothers came to reside in North Wilkesboro, which led to them becoming a musical fixture in Western North Carolina.
“America is an interesting place,” Krüger said. “If you do something that is (unique to) you, and you do it with all you’ve got, there is enough people here that might like what you do because you have 300 million-plus people here in this country. If you keep on doing what you do and love, you’re bound to find people that connect to you, so you can make a living. And Doc Watson was the one who encouraged us over all of these years.”