From The Rolling Stones to Bill Monroe, Byron Berline Left His Mark

Fiddler Byron Berline lived many lives in one: musician, collector and businessman, teacher and mentor. And now it’s all come to a close, but not before leaving an impact that stretches from being a genuine Bill Monroe Bluegrass Boy, to being flown out to California to record with The Rolling Stones, to having folks like Vince Gill and the Turnpike Troubadours show up to pay tribute to him in a time of need. Bridging both genres and generations from his enthusiasm for music and the fiddle instrument, Byron Berline was a blessing to all he touched, and he touched so many.

It’s probably the Rolling Stones story that intrigues people the most. When the band was being inspired by Gram Parsons in the late 60’s and wanted to record a country version of their hit single “Honky Tonk Women” called “Country Honk,” they hunted down Byron Berline as the only right guy for the job. At that point, Berline was already well-known among the rock and roll scene from playing with Bob Dylan and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Byron Berline famously played his part in the song on out Sunset Boulevard at dusk to get that greasy feel the band was looking for. His bow slipped and he hit a sour note on the particular take they decided to keep. That was just the type of imperfection they were after.

But Berline had already lived another life before that opportunity in the rock world arose. Born officially in Kansas but raised in Oklahoma, he began playing fiddle at the age of 5 in a family full of musicians. Then on the day President John F. Kennedy was killed—November 22, 1963—he happened to meet The Dillards who were playing in Oklahoma that day. Byron was 19-years-old. And though he would go on to earn an education degree from the University of Oklahoma as well, Berline got swept up in the music business, and never looked back.

First meeting Bill Monroe in 1965 at the famed Newport Folk Fest, when Byron Berline graduated from college in 1967, he joined the outfit as the official fiddler full time, only to be drafted shortly thereafter and be forced to leave the legendary band. After his discharge in 1969, Berline ended up in California, feeling his future might be more promising rubbing elbows with rockers than twangers. He played fiddle, mandolin, and sang harmony vocals for The Byrds, The Dobbie Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, and so many more, and performed on numerous movie soundtracks. He also played in his own outfits, including Byron Berline and Sundance, and Country Gazette, touring all across the United States, and in many parts of the world acting as a fiddle ambassador.

But back in his native Oklahoma, many know Byron Berline from an entirely different line of fiddle work. In 1995 he returned to Oklahoma after the death of his father in law, and opened the now famed Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall in Guthrie. It was from there that he became a pillar of fiddle music in Oklahoma by inspiring, teaching, and mentoring many in the discipline, while supplying a new generation with worthy instruments. It was just as much a musical institution as it was a business.

This was underscored when tragedy struck in 2019, and the Double Stop Fiddle Shop burned to the ground, with many of the shop’s stock also lost in the fire. Berline became an avid collector of fiddles and other instruments in the late 80’s, and had numerous 17th and 18th century fiddles in his collection. He saw himself as a shepherd for the instruments, and now they were gone.

When news spread of the tragedy, a benefit was put together on May 7th, 2019, with Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin, and the Turnpike Troubadours all performing, that latter who had close ties to Byron Berline and the Double Stop Fiddle Shop since their inception, especially their fiddle player Kyle Nix. Proceeds raised from the community allowed Berline to open a new location.

The Oklahoma Music Hall of Famer, National Fiddler Hall of Famer, three-time National Fiddle Champion, and three-time Grammy nominee passed away on Saturday, July 10th. He was 77 years old.

“Byron suffered a stroke in the cerebellum which affected his coordination and vision,” the family announced on Sunday (7-11). “He was making improvements with his eyes and coordination, and getting stronger. After a few weeks he began aspirating food into his lungs which led to increased invasive treatments which he couldn’t recover from. Eventually his lungs gave up and so did his heart. He passed at 7:30pm Saturday, July 10, as his band was going on stage at the Music Hall.”

Along with countless others that played with him, played for him, learned from him, or were inspired to take up the art of fiddling by merely being in the presence of Byron Berline and feeling his passion for the instrument, Kyle Nix of the Turnpike Troubadours who was a direct student of Berline addressed his passing on Sunday.

“I was at his shop every chance I could get. I’d play his instruments, listen to his great stories, ask him for advice, watch and listen to him play fiddle and learn as much as I could. We became friends,” Kyle Nix said in part. “My heart is broken but I know his influence will live on. It’s in classic songs, it’s in the way you play a fiddle, it’s in the way you tell a story, it’s in the way you perfect a fiddle tune.”

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