Brilliant Songs #19: The Kruger Brothers’ “Watches the Clouds Roll By”

Ahhhh, clouds! Angels are supposed to flit around on them, sometimes they form into lions or letters of the alphabet, they’ve been known to get in our way (necessitating that we look at them from both sides now). Clouds can appear mysterious, rhapsodic, wispy, shy, imposing, explosive, angry, lush, but whatever their form and mood at any given moment, what they’re best at is getting us to look up and behold the heavens—where the Kruger Brothers, Switzerland and North Carolina’s Favorite Sons, seem to compose all their music.

The title alone of our latest “Brilliant Song” gets us in a certain frame of mind. Watching clouds roll by suggests an appealing quality of indolence, something we do on a Saturday afternoon when we shed our go-go capitalist garments in favor of something loose-fitting, on which we don’t mind some dirt and pine needles leaving their mark after we spread our blanket on the earth, the uncorked bottle of wine now drained and lazily poking its head from the picnic basket.

But in the Kruger Brothers’ “Watches the Clouds Roll By,” masterful songwriter and banjoist Jens Kruger brings other images to bear in  a pensive meditation that presents slices of ordinary lives going about everyday tasks—work, school, fence repair—while barely in the background, almost painfully close, the solace and glory of the passing clouds beckon.

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Uwe is the other Kruger brother, playing guitar in this trio that includes the Krugers’ longtime spiritual brother and bassist Joel Landsberg. The Krugers were born and raised in Switzerland, music mad from an early age, tuned to every genre, but in the way of such marvels, increasingly drawn to American roots music. Renowned bluegrass masters Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, now gone, were among their early idols, whom the brothers were later able to meet, spend bountiful time with and be encouraged by when attending festivals in the U.S.

Landsberg is a New Yorker who moved to Switzerland in 1989, soon found and began playing with the brothers there, then joined them to formally become the Kruger Brothers in 1995. The group made its American debut two years later at the popular Merlefest, the annual Americana music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina that Doc Watson founded in honor of his guitarist son who died in a tragic accident.

In 2002, the trio moved to Wilkesboro, and have called it home ever since.

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A barely discernible longing fingers it way through each verse of this song, like cirrostratus clouds on the distant horizon that will soon envelop the sky. (Feel free to scroll a bit and give it a listen first; there’s no perfect way to listen or read here.)

No one in this tale walks away in rebellion as a means of resolving the familiar tension between the demands of our everyday lives and the beauty that is ever present (and ever shape-shifting) in the heavens.

We can’t live every moment in revery, after all—those who try tend to wind up scalded, having flown too close to the sun. The affairs of the world often keep our vision lowered and focused, our brows furrowed in concentration, before release:

The clover still glistens with mornin’ dew
His feet are all wet in his old leather shoes
He’s been fixing the fence since early this morn
Time for a coffee back home

On the way, he gets to pass along the countryside:

It’s a beautiful day with plenty to do
All is the same and everything’s new
He takes off his cap, looks up at the sky
Watches the clouds roll by

Things are a bit more difficult for our boy in this tale, however:

His textbooks are covered with things that he draws
While the teacher expounds about natural laws
He’s trying to wipe up all the blue on his hands
From the ink of the pen that he broke

In the last 30 minutes the things that were said
Never quite seemed to make it inside of his head
So he looks out the window, and he lets his dream fly
Watches the clouds roll by

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O.K., so let’s have a listen now before returning for some last discussion. The Kruger Brothers defy easy categorization, imbued as they are with strains of bluegrass, folk, jazz, classical—the whole gamut of musical expression. Doc Watson once commented how much he loved playing with them, but the same could be said by most everyone in the musical firmament, so inventive while easy on the ears the Krugers’ music is.

In this performance from a decade ago, they team up with a symphony orchestra, not an uncommon event, the orchestra not the least infringing on the inviting lyrical and musical web that is the group’s stock in trade.

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There’s an appealing plaintiveness to our waitress leaving her graveyard shift, stepping “through the backdoor alone,” her feet and legs no doubt feeling worn to the bone. But she is finally outside, the night not yet given way:

On a Tuesday night in the middle of June
She stops by the roadside to gaze at the moon
Hears off in the distance a whippoorwill cry
Watching the clouds go by

This moon in the middle of June, this whippoorwill, these clouds, this woman herself, for all her seeming solidity and mass—all of it equally ephemeral, vaporous, beautiful but transient, like Jen’s and Uwe’s and Joel’s string pickings as they project, sound, and fade into the hall, to be followed by others, for a while, until their final fade and rest.

Nothin’ remains in this world forever
We are all just passing by
Sharing our time for a few precious moments
Then we move on like clouds in the sky

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Ultimately, in those “few precious moments,” we must make a statement for love and adoration of the world, from which we can make our sufferings bearable and even redemptive. And thanks to our imaginative and aesthetic powers, clouds, like all of nature, are there for us as solace and inspiration, joined in solidarity at the mysteries that abide in this realm, at everything that is—until it will be no more.

He brushes the leaves off an old mossy stone
To spend a few moments with an old friend alone
Sits down on the stump of an old cypress tree
Cleans out the bowl of his pipe

Shadows are rushing through things that lie bare
There are so many stories, with no one to share
Picks up his hat, looks up to the sky
Watches the clouds roll by

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

All cloud photos by Andrew Hidas  https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

4 comments to Brilliant Songs #19: The Kruger Brothers’ “Watches the Clouds Roll By”

  • Claire Spencer  says:

    There is precious little I like better than to read something that sends me off on tangents. Upon reading the first paragraph of your blog, I found myself thinking of a cloud reference from yesterday where a lost person described her location as “by the cloud that looks like a lion.” I not only related to it but laughed because my own descriptions often fell into that realm. Moreover, your nod to “Both Sides Now” brought back fond memories of our last Judy Collins concert a few years back, where she played with Don McClean, who looked uncannily like an old picture that someone spilled water on, a damp wrinkly version of the original. That said, I began your journey into a treatise on the music of the Kruger Brothers in a happy state of mind. Reading your words and then listening to the music were like taking a long deep breath of clean crisp air on this Sunday afternoon. Thanks for this refreshing post and for introducing me to the dulcet tones and lilting locutions of Jens, Uwe and Joel.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Claire, I have laughed many times since reading this, the image of someone giving their location as “by the cloud that looks like a lion” so delicious and zany I’m thinking it was out of a Tom Robbins novel, or maybe a little Zen ditty the roshi shares from his pillow among much mirth. Can hardly think of a more apt evocation of human beings flailing around in what we mostly want and assume to be an unchanging world, while moment to moment, all our lions are reshaping themselves into lambs, snakes, bongs, the Joad family’s jalopy, or layered pillows that seem to stretch to infinity. Thanks for that; I will carry it with me!

      Very happy to have introduced the Krugers to you. I needed this too, after all the madness that has abided. Here’s another of my very favorites, if you haven’t come across it already: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyQOm2i9DMs

  • Arjan Khalsa  says:

    I am delighted that you chose to write about the Kruger Brothers. Over the past few years I have become interested in and involved in the banjo community, and Jens Kruger stands out as a highly skilled, creative, and innovative banjo master.

    I have studied with some fine teachers and have come to understand that Jens’ method of playing can be placed under the umbrella of “3-Finger Banjo.” In his case, he combines at least three styles: Scruggs style (roll-based bluegrass), melodic, and single string. Few others do this in an important way. Bela Fleck is perhaps the most well known. My teacher, Wes Corbett, is a fine example and his new album, Cascade, is an example of the beauty that these three styles can deliver.

    Jens Kruger and the Kruger Brothers have woven these banjo textures into lyrical compositions and they have the compositional prowess to write for larger ensembles. Thank you for calling attention to their unique role in our musical world.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks very much, Arjan. I always feel better when informed musicians weigh in on musical matters, in which I am and will always remain an impassioned amateur. I am also with you on the dazzling Bela Fleck, and will look into Wes Corbett, thanks for the tip, and happy studenting to you!

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