Occasionally, news of certain unexpected events can literally take your breath away. Such was the case on Feb. 23. While sitting down for lunch, I received a text that Byron Berline’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop was up in flames. Soon, pictures and videos were showing up on Facebook, adding to the heartbreak that anyone connected with Byron was feeling. As a frequent visitor to the Fiddle Shop, rarely did I walk in without witnessing a jam session that involved Byron and musicians of all ages. Often someone would hand me a guitar or banjo and suddenly I was lost in the moment of participating in an incredible jam session. Just two weeks prior to the fire, someone had posted a video of Vince Gill dropping in and joining in a jam with Byron.
Two days after the fire, video began showing up on social media and news broadcasts of the vaults being lifted from the debris and opened while Byron began inspecting the contents. Although there would be damage to many of the vintage instruments in those vaults, there was a bit of relief on the face of Byron as he gently handled each of these “old friends.”
There’s been no word on final damage assessment, but one thing is for sure. Byron Berline’s legacy will never be defined or affected by a fire.
As my interest in bluegrass began expanding in 1980, it wasn’t long before I began seeing Byron as a major contributor. I’m not aware of any other individual who recorded with Bill Monroe AND The Rolling Stones. There were many other legends in between Byron worked alongside.
During my music obsession of the 1980s, I would always look at the musicians playing on recordings. Most fiddle tracks recorded west of the Mississippi seemed to be either Byron or Johnny Gimble. Byron probably doesn’t remember the first time we met, which was during an impromptu jam session in Winfield, Kansas, around 1988. He treated everyone with the same genuine kindness. Byron and Betty left California in 1995 to move to Guthrie.
We became better acquainted in 1998 when I first played the Oklahoma’s International Bluegrass Festival, which he was instrumental in starting in 1997. It was a huge thrill just two years later when I was asked to join his board of directors of the festival, which I’ve served as treasurer now for almost 20 years.
In 2003, I asked Byron if he would contribute his fiddle playing to my solo recording project, Fresh Off The Strings. I envisioned his playing on three original arrangements of cover tunes by Bill Monroe (done in a Stevie Ray Vaughn style), Merle Haggard (done in a Bill Monroe Style), and The Monkees. We recorded his tracks at the Double Stop Fiddle Shop Music Hall, with Steve Short engineering. It didn’t take Byron long to grasp the unorthodox style of each tune, nailing each on a first take. It was a very proud moment knowing I was able to share the same fiddle player with Bill Monroe and The Rolling Stones!
During lunch one day in Guthrie, I had shared with Byron I had just read a book about The Eagles and asked him if he spent much time at The Troubadour in LA. He began sharing stories of “hoot” night and how he had ended up playing some shows with Don Henley, Glen Frey, and Randy Meisner. When I responded “Byron, that would be the Eagles,” he humbly responded “Yeah, I guess that was.”
The night Byron was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 1999, his induction was presented by Vince Gill (and Byron presented to Vince). It was a special night that ended with a jam session at the Love Ranch (where I first encountered Harley Hamm). Years later, when Hankerin’ 4 Hank was performing early shows in Stillwater and Kingfisher, Byron graciously filled in when our fiddle player was unavailable.
There are many reasons that Byron has one of the most admirable legacies in the music business. The list of contributions to other artists, TV, and motion pictures is astounding alone. But from my perspective, at the top of the list is his commitment to his family, most notably his wife Betty. Then his friends. The admiration by anyone who has been around him is incredible. His commitment to sharing his talents with young and old is unmatched. His accomplishments are too great to even begin to discuss in this article. I would highly recommend obtaining a copy of his book, “Byron Berline: A Fiddler’s Diary” by Byron and Jane Frost.
And of course, take the time to go see this living legend and Oklahoma treasure live and in person. I highly recommend attending his festival in Guthrie the first weekend in October and seeing not only his incredible band, but also witnessing his genuine kindness in with anyone he meets.