Jens and Uwe Kruger, with bandmate Joel Landsberg, are three of the best string musicians on the planet.
Jens and Uwe were born and raised in Europe, but, collectively, the Kruger Brothers play a brand of American music that’s simultaneously sweet, soulful, simple, and complex.
Since 1997 the band has played MerleFest, a nationally celebrated Americana music festival in Wilkesboro, where, coincidentally, the band calls home and where it holds a music festival of its own.
The Kruger Brothers played MerleFest again this year, on the last Thursday in April. Just as scheduled.
No one came. They played anyway. To empty green fields, not a chair or fan in sight.
It’s like that these days. A slew of N.C. music festivals have fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic and to Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide lockdown.
Bluegrass legend Doc Watson founded MerleFest, named in memory of his son, in 1988. It’s the biggest fundraiser for Wilkes Community College and typically draws some 80,000 over a four-day weekend, which includes 13 stages and some 70 artists. The festival brings in millions for Wilkes and surrounding counties, and more than 75 civic, institutional, and community groups earn at least $500,000 through food and shuttle services, county officials say.
All gone this year. It’s a familiar story, of course. A cliche, really.
North Carolina is an all-star jam band of festivals celebrating American traditional and bluegrass music. The starry list includes the annual International Bluegrass Music Association World of Bluegrass Festival in downtown Raleigh. For now, that festival, which brings thousands of people to the capital, is still on as scheduled, Sept. 29-Oct. 1. The inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival, in early September in Mill Spring, is on, too. So is Carolina in the Fall, the Krugers’ festival, in Wilkesboro. The N.C. FolkFest in Greensboro, Sept. 11-13, is too, in a modified form, say organizers.
Festival websites offer a similar disclosure, using words such as uncertain, unprecedented, trying, challenging. These are the hopeful ones. Others, scheduled for the spring, are, by necessity, more to the point.
As in “canceled.”
The fiscal toll of the state-mandated lockdowns is unimaginable. The mental toll, a result of the inherent closures because of social distancing, is, too, inconceivable, though more difficult to quantify. Just try to pull back, to uncover, the layers of hurt left by the shutdowns and suppressions. I have tried. I stop with the first wave of nausea.
Bands that rely on shows and festivals as a primary source of income are finding other ways to make money. But music remains close by, long shadows that will never fade to black. They work on new songs, on new albums, which they’ll release without parties or fanfare. They play live shows in their living rooms for people they can’t see. They ask for tips on Venmo and PayPal along with moral support. They struggle to connect to their fans, to people who faithfully show up to hear them perform in this town or that. People who are always there for them. People who feed their creativity and inspiration. And give them love.
Scythian, as I’ve written, is Celtic and old-world rock finished with a healthy splash of bluegrass. Dan and Alexander Fedoryka, first-generation sons of Ukrainian immigrants, founded Scythian in the early 2000s.
“A double-shot of energy and high-proof rhythm, from a group of the most genuine people one would ever meet,” I wrote. “Watch the band live and try to sit still. I dare you.”
To get to MerleFest, says Dan Fedoryka, the band “crawled through the kitchen window.” Before Scythian became the proverbial MerleFest “house band,” band members set up outside the festival gates as people streamed through.
MerleFest organizers eventually let them in. Scythian, too, has never left.
“Officially,” Scythian has played every MerleFest since 2007, as many as four shows in a day and as many as nine over the four days. Scythian, based in Front Royal, Virginia, has a big, dedicated following. These people miss Scythian. Scythian misses these people.
“I love the chaos of it,” Alexander Fedoryka told Carolina Journal. “We always say we just want to play as much as we can. … It’s a blast. No rest, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The band now sets up in someone’s living room, playing shows they call “Quaranstreams.” They still interact with fans, in a virtual way. It works, for now, he says. Still, he says things feel a bit untethered. Lost. As if somebody cut the band’s anchor, setting them adrift. It’s the fans, he says, who keep Scythian clear of the storm.
“This terrible thing has happened to our industry, and so many other musicians are in the same shoes, where the train stopped completely.
“Let’s not say it’s life and death, but it’s our livelihood, and [the fans] are now directly carrying us. So, there’s a lot of beautiful realizations, and a deeper appreciation, for those fans.”
Scythian is a staple of the annual Irish and Celtic festival circuits. The band has watched, cringed, as one after another is canceled. See you next year, they say. Scythian has a new album, “Roots and Stones.” They planned to release the CD at MerleFest. Then during the Dayton Celtic Festival.
“We’ll figure it out,” Alexander says. “It’s an odd feeling. As crazy as it might sound, there’s a little bit of a feeling of peace. For something this big to happen, where you really have so little control over, you just gotta let it go.
“I’ve always felt … you started out playing the streets, and everything is a bonus. You make a few dollars in your case, and it was always this feeling of magic. Like, I can’t believe it. I just made enough money for gas or for dinner just because I was playing tunes on the corner. …”
Scythian hosts its own annual Appaloosa Music Fest held over Labor Day weekend near their home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It’s still on. For now.
The price of social distancing is exorbitant.
“We want so badly for the music to happen,” Alexander told CJ. “I mean, that’s us, you know, that’s Scythian, and we’re going to do everything we can, because we know the value of music, especially in a time like this.
“People have been isolated, and music really brings people together. It can be so healing. We all want to get past this … and music is probably the most powerful thing now. It transcends politics, it transcends religious divides. It’s so powerful, probably the most powerful unitive force in America right now, and we need this really badly.”