At first, banjo player Jens Kruger thought it was a joke, because how often do $50,000 checks hit one’s mailbox out of the blue?
But it was no joke – just the payoff for Kruger winning this year’s fourth annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music, as selected by a committee of Martin and other luminaries from the banjo world.
“It came with a letter signed by all my heroes,” said Kruger, co-leader of the North Wilkesboro-based Kruger Brothers. “Steve Martin, Bela Fleck, J.D. Crowe, Pete Wernick, Alison Brown. To be honored as a banjo player by people like that is just an amazing feeling. A beautiful, absolutely stunning experience.”
Martin created and endowed the prize, whose previous winners include Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny (keynote speaker of the upcoming International Bluegrass Music Association festival in Raleigh). Kruger is the first winner to reside in North Carolina, and the first to have been born outside the United States. He and his guitar-playing brother Uwe immigrated to America in 2003, drawn by the music.
Having grown up playing American roots music in Switzerland, the Krugers selected North Wilkesboro as a destination because it was the stomping grounds of the late Doc Watson, with whom they often played before his death last year. During the immigration process, Watson, Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss were among the musicians who vouched for the Kruger Brothers to receive green cards under the “extraordinary ability” stipulation.
In the decade since their arrival, the Kruger Brothers have earned nationwide acclaim for their cross-category synthesis of folk and classical, playing everything from rural folk festivals to New York jazz clubs. They’ll also be at the IBMA’s “World of Bluegrass” festival in Raleigh this month.
“We’ve never tried to be a bluegrass band, but we’ve never tried not to be a bluegrass band, either,” said Kruger. “We see ourselves as playing what we call New Carolina Music. It’s our brand of folk music, and it fits for us in North Carolina. We’re happy to have landed in North Carolina, which is a good place to live and to play. To have IBMA here now, too, is fantastic.”
In advance of IBMA, the Kruger Brothers will perform their “Appalachian Concerto” with Ciompi Quartet at Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium next weekend. Once IBMA gets started, they’ll be busy with multiple showcases and workshops. In recognition of his Martin Prize, Jens might also do an onstage cameo at Martin’s festival-closing show with Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell on Sept. 28.
“Steve called the other day to talk about some things we’ll do,” Kruger said. “He’s very nice. Somehow, we’ve gotten to know each other. I have high respect for him, and he likes what I do.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat
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