On The String: As Byron Berline Rebuilds His Fiddle Business, His Legacy Is Secure
Fiddle player Byron Berline has had a wide-ranging career, from Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys to the country rock movement to the recording studios of Los Angeles, where he played sessions for The Rolling Stones, The Eagles and Elton John. Since closing that chapter in the mid 1990s, Berline has owned and operated the Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie, OK, a fine instrument dealer, performance venue and community hub. In February, a fire tore through the 1901 building, destroying a lifetime’s collection of artifacts.
I happened to be in the region during my late March reporting trip to Tulsa for a special music city profile heard here as Episode 88. When I read about the fire, I asked Mr. Berline if he would visit with me, and he was kind enough to host me at his home for the interview in this week's show and this report.
The fire reportedly started in the back of a flower shop next door to the Double Stop. High winds from the South whipped the flames into an inferno that roared through the building, consuming just about everything inside, including rare instruments and an extensive collection of personal memorabilia amassed over a lifetime of top-tier music-making.
"Everything I’d collected for many years was in there," Berline says. "My dad’s instruments. Things he handed down to me. Things that weren’t for sale. Just on display, like a museum. Recordings of different people. Signed things by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, you name it. One of a kind instruments that you’ll never find again - some made in the 18th century that were really unique. I think about things every day that I lost in there."
Two important instruments escaped destruction. Berline's son-in-law was at the shop when the fire erupted and he was able to get Berline's personal fiddle out of the building. Day later, firefighters sawed open a safe containing some prized instruments. The fiddles had all been baked past the point of no return. But a rare Gibson mandolin from 1923 – the same model and vintage as Bill Monroe’s – emerged from a high-tech instrument case in excellent condition.
The memories and accomplishments Berline accumulated in his 74 years have few equals among fiddle players. He was invited to be a Blue Grass Boy after a single meeting with Bill Monroe at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He played with the father of bluegrass for seven months in 1967, a tenure ended only by Army service. But in that time Berline composed several tunes with Monroe, including the enduring jam favorite “The Gold Rush.”
Berline’s career truly found its direction after he got out of the Army in 1969 and moved to Los Angeles to be part of a cutting-edge band. Dillard & Clark were pioneers of the country rock movement, sharing personnel with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Berline, who could adapt his old-time fiddling to a range of modern settings, became a studio favorite for pop music and movies. A lot of that life revolved around LA’s most famous folk rock club.
"The Troubadour was a big melting pot," he says. "Every time I went down there in the evening, I don’t care what day it was, I’d get a session from it."
One of his most widely-heard fiddle parts was for the Rolling Stones, who in 1969 re-recorded “Honky Tonk Women” as the down-home acoustic song “Country Tonk” for the album Let It Bleed. “They put me outdoors on the sidewalk to record it," Berline remembers. He tells the story of how producer Glynn Johns and Mick Jagger called him into consult on the part he'd laid down. They didn't have a problem with it, but they suggested a change of ambience, setting up a monitor speaker outdoors and tracking acoustic instruments with LaCienega Blvd. traffic in the background.
Berline formed his own bands as well, including the traditional bluegrass Country Gazette, and the more progressive electric string band Sunliner. In 1976, Berline invited a 19-year old Vince Gill out west to join as the new lead singer.
“I played with Byron out there a couple years. He gave me a chance and a job," Gill told WMOT recently. "I made a great friend and we stayed in touch all these years. We still manage to record together. And it was life changing how well he played the fiddle. It was just astounding he good he was and is."
Gill headlined a sold-out benefit concert in Guthrie in early May that's helped Berline rebuild his inventory and open a new location for the Double Stop Fiddle Shop. You can see that below, courtesy of Guthrie News. Berline is reportedly on track to open later this summer.