Americana Music

The Jubalaires: Grandfathers of Rap

I have always been a fan of The Mills Brothers. Those great harmonies that would only need a archtop guitar for accompaniment. They were cool, to say the least, and I have spent a lot of time on YouTube watching their vintage videos.

While YT surfing, I came across The Jubalaires. Wow! Same set up (four guys singing together, accompanied by a guitar), but where The Mills Brothers had a slightly jazz feel that kept them popular with the big band crowd, The Jubalaires had some gospel influences, but could also be considered the Grandfathers of Hip-Hop/Rap. They talked a lot of their lyrics in a lot of songs, with hard rhymes that would put many modern rappers to shame.

One video of The Jubalaires has them performing a song called “Brother Bill.” This is one of those black cinema shorts popular in the African-American community in the 1930s-40s. I like the one comment stating “Guns, groupies, dollar sign on suit, they are truly the pioneer of gangsta rap.”

I won’t go on about these guys, I’ll just post these videos for you to enjoy.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music

Nesmith Always Marched To a Different Drum

A few months back, I blogged about the passing of Michael Nesmith and how important he was to the creation and movement of country-rock music ( While everyone in the Americana audience seems to worship Gram Parsons, I have always tipped my hat to Nesmith. The guy had the cool attitude – confident, a bit arrogant, but always with a great sense of humor.

So about two weeks ago, while internet surfing, I caught an article about a recent release of Nesmith’s unreleased solo and First/Second National Band material. The album is Different Drum: The Lost RCA/Victor Recordings. It is put out by Real Gone Music, and I knew that I had to have it. I ordered the CD, and after an error on the record company’s end, I finally got the album yesterday. I have been listening to it continually for the past day!

There are his versions of “Different Drum” and “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” along with covers like “Six Days on the Road” (with an arrangement that makes it hard to recognize the song). There is also a big section of instrumentals that, at times, sounds experimental, but has the always-present pedal steel of Red Rhodes. The early 1970s were a lost time for this type of music. Rock music was going very hard edge, even bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were tripping heavily. Parsons had the right idea, but his material always sounded like demos and not finished product. This was pre-Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt was just starting to get noticed on her own. Emmylou Harris was suddenly on her own, and was trying to break into the mainstream country fold with ideas that Gram blessed on her.

Nesmith was producing amazing songs and sounds. During a Monkees’s recording session in Nashville, while working with A-list musicians there, the “sound” hit him, and he never looked back. Country-rock was born, although it has some heartbeats in the Byrds’ early albums. Perhaps it was his comical fame from The Monkees, but Nesmith’s work was never fully appreciated by the masses, and still is not by Americana audiences outside of the intelligentsia. While Gram had inspired The Rolling Stones to produce classics such as “Wild Horses,” and the alt-country crowds of the late 1990s thought of him as a godsend, Nesmith was continually looked at as “the Monkee with the knit cap.”

I implore anyone to secure a copy of this CD. In my opinion, it is much more rational and concrete of a definition of “country-rock” than anything Parsons put out. While Parsons was working to get rock audiences to appreciate George Jones, Nesmith was pushing the barriers of what country-rock songwriting was about. One listen to this recording of “Roll with the Flow” Will convince you how important Nesmith’s work is to the Americana music format.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Bluegrass Music Folk Music

Pay Attention to Cary Fridley

I have always had a place in my heart for Cary Fridley. That voice is pure beauty.

I had mentioned Cary previously in a past blog on titled “The Lost Art of Bluegrass Singing” (, where I talked about the video Vocal Techniques for Old-Time Mountain Music that she did for Homespun Tapes. I fell in love with her voice the first time I heard her singing with The Freight Hoppers. After leaving the band, she recorded a number of solo albums as well as played bass in a few other bands. To see her history, I recommend going to her website at

I recently found her album Down South and put it in the CD player. It hit me why I love this girl’s voice. It is so pure, comfortable singing folk, bluegrass, traditional country, and blues. Looking at her bio, she works with so many bands, as well as teaching vocals and traditional music theory at the Junior Appalachian Music programs and the Black Mountain Center for the Arts. Additionally, she is an adjunct faculty for the Fine Arts at the AB-Tech College in Asheville, North Carolina. This girl keeps busy!

You can tell it is all because of her love and passion for traditional music. Cary truly puts her heart and soul into her work. I have subscribed to her YouTube channel ( For a few years now, and along with videos of past performances with The Freight Hoppers, she has posted a number of lessons that she gives to her classes at the college and the JAM programs. Her latest video is what got me to loving her again, so to speak. It consists of a shot of a CD player, and it is playing her album Fare You Well in its entirety ( I wonder how many other people who are this passionate about Appalachian music work as hard as Cary.

I am going to keep this blog short, as I only really want you to spend some time checking out Cary’s videos. You may learn a few things!

Next week, the blog will be late, as I will be attending the last day of the Milan Bluegrass Festival. Hopefully, I will have a few good stories to tell.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Country Music

Perfect Song #7: “Sixteen Tons” (Tennessee Ernie Ford version)

This is one badass song! If there ever was a “man” song, it would have to be this recording. It is right up there as tough as any Led Zeppelin number. Merle Travis wrote it about the trials and tribulations that his brother faced as a coal miner. He recorded it in 1947, but his was more of a country-folk ballad. Frankie Laine, Doc Watson, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, The Dandy Warhols, Old Crow Medicine Show, and a slew of other artists have recorded this classic, but it is the Tennessee Ernie Ford version that stands out as the definitive version.

From the start, it did not have the ingredients for a cutting-edge pop number. The main instruments that work with the vocals are a clarinet (with a bass clarinet in the background) and a trumpet. A brushed snare drum and upright bass follow the vocals in a smooth jazz sense. It isn’t until the last chorus that we hear any other instrumentation: a laid-back rhythm guitar and an ending accented by a harp. Then there’s the snapping of the finger. Like the lighting of a match or the sound of a pick hitting rock far away. The minimalist instrumentation makes the listener pay attention to the story, with every instrument accenting the words and making sure that you understand what was just said.

But it is that voice! Ford’s bass-baritone vocals make every word sound like it is coming form the depths of a coal mine. Earth-shaking, heart-pounding tone of a voice! Before this recording, Ford was known for singing some corny country & western songs, as well as a few ballads with Kay Starr. He did have a Number 1 hit with “Mule Train” back in the late 1940s.

Travis wrote a number of verses for the song, but the four that Ford used are the most memorable, telling of what a man is made of, how he is a slave to the coal company and its store, how he can’t be made to “walk the line” by any woman, and getting on his bad side may mean death. Some of these ideas would not go over well in a song today, but back in the early 1950s, when coal miners were still revered by the common man yet treated poorly by the rich mine owners, one could hardly argue with the singer.

As you listen, you can actually hear this voice as it is working in the mine. You also wonder how much time it would take for one man to mine 16 tons of coal. But you don’t question it, because you have high respect for this guy. You KNOW he could kick your ass in! Everything that doesn’t work in a pop song falls into place to work here. In under three minutes, you get an autobiography of a working man. Someone who has broken his back to make sure that he has a roof over his and his family’s head as well as food on the table.

I could listen to this song a thousand times and never get bored. Ford’s voice is beyond human – it is from the gods! The story moves you, knowing that there is a man out there working his life away yet still can be tough as a rock after quitting time. This was rock-n-roll attitude before the media caught on to what Elvis and Chuck Berry were doing. So pay attention, a recording like this comes around only once or twice in a lifetime.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Musicians

Michael Nesmith RIP

This one made me heartbroken. Yesterday, December 10th, singer-songwriter and former member of the Monkees Michael Nesmith passed away at the age of 78. As a kid, I was a big fan of the Monkees. Yeah, the whole prefabricated set-up was frowned upon years afterward, but the band dressed cool, were funny, and made some great music.

As I got older, and started to get into country-rock music, I became a big fan of Nesmith. I looked back on his Monkees catalogue, and was surprised how many of the better songs from the band were written by him. He also wrote “Different Drum” for Linda Rondstadt and The Stone Poneys. When everyone in the alt-country and Americana was gushing over Gram Parsons as being the formats’ godfather, I was singing the praises of Nesmith and his influential work with the First National Band, later becoming the Second National Band.

Nesmith really never had to work in his life if he didn’t want to. He could have lived off of his mother’s fortune, as she was the inventor of Liquid Paper correction fluid. Before graduating high school, he enlisted in the US Air Force, and started writing songs upon discharge. He moved from Texas to California, got a publishing deal, then a friend told him to audition for a television show about a Beatles-type band. He beat out Steven Stills and John Sebastian (from Lovin’ Spoonful) and the rest is 1960s television history.

From the beginning, Nesmith pushed for the producers of the show to allow him and the other members to perform on their own instruments and write their own songs. By the time of the band’s third album, Headquarters, they got more freedom. However, interest in this pre-made band and internal conflicts were building up. The group made their own feature film, Head, that was panned by critics, but one could see where Nesmith would move to in the next few years.

After the dissolving of the Monkees, Nesmith formed The First National Band. If you ever come across any recordings of this incarnation or of the Second National Band, buy them! Pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes was amazing to say the least.

Nesmith also got into video production in its early stages. He produced and starred in an hour-long music video montage called Elephant Parts, which won a Grammy Award in 1982 for Long-Form Music Video. For this and some of his other early work, he has been considered one of the fathers of MTV. He also had a short-lived television show called Television Parts that helped launch the careers of Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jay Leno. He produced a number of underground films, the best known being Repo Man and Tapeheads (in both he makes a cameo a la Alfred Hitchcock).

During the 1990s, he helped sponsor the Council on Ideas, which was a think-tank of intellectuals discussing the major concerns of the day and would publish the results. He was also involved in a lawsuit with PBS over video licensing rights. He won the case, and gave the best quote regarding the situation: “It’s like finding your grandmother stealing your stereo. You’re happy to get your stereo back, but it’s sad to find out your grandmother is a thief.”

It was Nesmith’s songwriting with what I am most impressed. The list is many that are now considered sing-along classics. “Different Drum,” “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere,” “Mary, Mary,” “Listen to the Band,” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues” are just a few. Besides the Monkees and Linda Rondstadt, other artists that recorded his song include the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lynn Anderson, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Frankie Laine.

I met Mike Nesmith in Chicago back in the early 1990s at a hotel. I went up to him and shook his hand, and told him how much I appreciated his songwriting. He was cordial but you could tell he had other things on his mind. I think that he was surprised that I didn’t ask to take a photo with him. I saw him in concert here in Detroit about five years ago. He was doing a tour highlighting songs of his career. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. He had Chris Scruggs playing lead guitar in the band (one of the best all-around musicians from Nashville, as well as being Earl Scruggs’ grandson), which was really cool.

I guess that my greatest personal tribute to Mike Nesmith came when my short-lived roots-rock band Two-Fisted Tales was asked to record a song for the compilation CD Papa Nez: A Loose Salute to the Work of Michael Nesmith. We did “Papa Gene’s Blues.” Take a listen.

Mike Nesmith made wearing a knit cap and playing a 12-string electric guitar cool. He rocked the long sideburns and big sunglasses. Your songwriting and spirit will live on forever in my rock-n-roll heart.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Classical Music

Perfect Song #4: “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

After the last few weeks of writing about musical artists that have left this world, it feels nice to write about something positive, or at least thought-provoking. This is another installment of a perfect song. I go a bit further from the basic roots music (although I did go pretty far off with John Philip Sousa a few weeks back), looking at what I consider the best in American classical music.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is often described by scholars as “orchestrated jazz.” True, when it first debuted in 1924 as part of Paul Whiteman’s “An Experimentation in Modern Music” concert in New York, it was performed by a medium-sized jazz ensemble. It received mixed reviews after the first performance, and carried on as a jazz piece until 1942, when Ferde Grofe arranged it for a symphonic orchestra. It was then that it became a true American classical masterpiece.

However, to fully understand this masterpiece, one must step back to when it was first created. Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to compose a concerto for an upcoming jazz performance. With five weeks to finish, Gershwin created most of the music on a train ride to Boston. His brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, suggested the title.

For the first performance, as well as the debut performance in England, Gershwin played the piano. It has been arranged for solo piano as well as ensemble, but most know it from its symphonic arrangement. It is there that one can hear what pictures were going through Gershwin’s mind while writing. That opening upward glissando performed on clarinet tells you that this is no ordinary classical piece, but it is not trad jazz either. There is a lot of blues thirds and seventh flats throughout, along with numerous slurs and roller-coaster dynamics. It is all of this that makes classicla and jazz slam into each other to create a unique aural experience.

Just listen to it. Close your eyes and listen. From the opening, what do you see in your mind? I see a 4-in-the-morning New York City street, just waking up with perhaps a street cleaner doing his business and a truck dropping off a stack of newspapers at a stand. As the song progresses, the streets get busier. Taxis and busses speeding around, people rushing to get to work, vendors selling fruits and flowers. There’s the hustle and bustle of the office workers, as well as cooks and waitresses getting ready for the lunch crowd. That’s when the tempo slows a bit, some people eating their lunch fast, while other are lounging in the park, savoring the brief rest period. Again, it speeds up for the afternoon work and then the homeward bound rush.

Finally, there is that powerful, nine-note slow climax, followed immediately by the pounding chords of the piano. Think about the nighttime in NYC, especially Broadway! The bright lights, the people dressed in their best going to shows, wanting to be seen. It drops off a bit, just for a few moments, as if there may be trouble, like a traffic accident or a lost child, but it is momentary, and goes back into that fabulous strong ending.

Gershwin was a genius in my ears. He truly heard “scenery” in music. He could create washes of life and living with his songwriting. No words needed, only sounds, and it motivates the listener to interpret those sounds into visuals. “Rhapsody in Blue” is probably his best example of this technique. I just feel that it is disheartening that very few American composers such as Gershwin, Aaron Copeland (whom I will cover in a later blog), and Leonard Bernstein do not get the same overall respect that the European composers of the earlier centuries do.

I implore you to take time to listen to this work of art. I guarantee that you will be moved, or at least understand why others such as myself are moved.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Country Music

Tom T. Hall RIP

Another week, another sad news reception while attempting to write the blog. This one really hurts.

My buddy that told me about Nancy Griffith last week just sent me another text. My songwriting hero, Tom T. Hall, passed away earlier today. Information on his passing is still being gathered, but we do know that he was 85 and had removed himself mostly from public appearances since the death of his wife Dixie back in 2015.

His songwriting thumb print ruled the 1960s and 70s. The classic “Harper Valley PTA” has been in constant rotation on hundreds of stations, with the most popular version sung by Jeannie C. Riley. However, the actual songs, be they performed by him or others, are textbook examples of what a song should be. Hall was always called The Storyteller, and songs like “I Like Beer,” “(Old Dogs and Children) and Watermelon Wine,” “I Love,” and “ Me and Jesus” would make any songwriter envious. These WERE stories! In three minutes, Hall told a great short story that John Updike would approve of.

Born and raised in Kentucky, he played in various bluegrass and country bands as a teenager, then joined the US Army, where he performed on Armed Forces Radio, writing songs about military life. He returned home to do disc jockey work at a number of radio stations. In 1963, Jimmy C. Newman recorded the Hall song “DJ For a Day,” which helped to launch his glorious career with guitar and pen. The biggest country stars of the time, including George Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, recorded Hall’s amazing work.

Just take “Harper Valley PTA.” Seen through the eyes of a young girl who gives her mother a letter from the local PTA about how risque the mother dresses. This was dangerous ground to tread in a song as it was during the 60s, but Hall made it into a comical lore. The mother goes to the PTA meeting and tells off all of the members by reporting on all of their hypocritical lifestyles. And Hall makes each line rhyme in a way that the whole stanza sticks in the listener’s mind so picturesque.

Then there’s the numerous songs that he wrote for children. “I Care” became a hit on the country charts in 1975. He married Dixie in 1969 (it was his second marriage; he married Opal McKinney in 1961 for a short period and had a son, Dan). The two of them wrote a number of hits for bluegrass bands, winning songwriting awards with both the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America. Even as the modern country music producers and executives were looking at him as past his prime, bluegrass artists knew that he still kicked out aural gold, and country stars such as Alan Jackson knew how great he truly was.

Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall fame in 2008, the Bluegrass Hall of Fame (along with Dixie) in 2018, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 (way too long of a wait for that one). He preferred mowing his lawn over going to Nashville parties, and rarely collaborated with others excepting Dixie. Perhaps that was his charm in his songs. He could see the human characteristics best on his own. And each three-minute story made the listener realize that he was singing about someone that everyone seemed to know in some way.

I love all of Hall’s songs, but my all-time favorite is “Ballad of Forty Dollars.” A cemetery worker has to set up chairs for a funeral, and as it turns out, he knows the deceased. He goes on to talk about the shady way the widow handled selling some of the man’s possessions, and finishes off the song by saying that the dead man owed the singer forty dollars. The poetry that Hall uses to tell the story makes you continually listen for the next line. You want to hear it again because it’s a great short story. And that Ton T. Hall gravely voice makes it sound like a common Joe Six-Pack telling his woes. Pure gold.

I met Hall once years ago at The Station Inn in Nashville. It was at a show that was the night before that year’s AmericanaFest. Not too many people were aware he was there, but how could I not recognize one of my songwriting heroes? I went up to him and shook his hand, telling him how much his songs have meant to me and my dad. He looked tired, not in a sociable mood, but he was cordial and seemed grateful that a regular guy appreciated him. I didn’t get a photo, I’m not big on those types of pics. But I can remember everything about that few minutes. Visually clear as, say, a Tom T. Hall song.

Tom, you don’t owe me forty dollars, but I owe you a million thank you’s. Your songs have inspired my writing in so many ways. I could only hope that one of my songs could even come within spitting distance of one of your classics. You will be missed by so many, but will always be remembered and held in high regard by me.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Songwriting

Nanci Griffith RIP

Toward the end of every week, I start to get frustrated thinking about what topic to post on my blog. When something comes along prior to tthe time to write, I feel relieved and happy. However, today I am not so happy with the news that came to me earlier in the day.

While driving home, my buddy texted me to say that singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith passed away. Although she left us on August 6, it was her wish that her death not be made public until a week afterward. Nanci was an Americana treasure. She wrote fantastic story songs. “Love at the Five and Dime” is an absolute classic. She rode the fence between folk and country music. She liked to call her music “Folkabilly.” Anyone that appreciated fine songwriting knew how great she was with a pen and guitar.

I was fortunate to see her perform twice. Each time, it was not a concert. She had an aura that made each audience member feel like she was singing and talking to that person alone. I know that sounds cliche, but with Nanci, it was true. Her banter between songs was so down to Earth, like you were sitting with her at a coffee house or bar. If she ever felt nervous on stage, you could not tell. She looked at you when she spoke.

She always looked like that girl you knew in high school, the one who was into poetry, but wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty changing the oil on a car if need be. She had an innocence on stage, yet was known for her cussing off stage. That is human, that is personable, that is what you want in a friend.

She was equally at home with a band or solo. Each song was a chapter in an American novel, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Every story, she was there, either as a reporter or protagonist. You could see the location in her words. After seeing one of her performances, it was guaranteed that you walked away emotionally satisfied.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, her record company was trying to pigeon hole her into the wave of neo-traditionalist country music performers. Nanci was much more, and she could not be put into such a category. Yes, her songs were like the country songs of old, but she and her songs were were beyond barriers. Folkies latched onto her. Other country artists looked to her for compositions and inspiration. She was so much better as long-standing singer-songwriter than she could ever be as a short-lived pop star. And the music world is so much better for it.

Like many songwriters, she went through a blockage for a few years, hers during the mid-2000s. She came back strong in 2009 with The Loving Kind. If I were to choose my favorite of her albums, it would be Flyer from 1994. Other great discs include 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind and 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, which won her a Grammy. She collaborated with so many other songwriters, the list is almost endless. I implore you to visit her catalog and listen to a few songs. You will surely be motivated to buy a few of her albums.

Goodbye, beautiful lady, dearest Nanci. You were a crush of mine, if only for your amazing writing. You are taking a piece of my heart with you. I pray that your songs will continue on for generations to come. I imagine some young girl who is just learning guitar and wants to sing, and she gets a hold of one of your albums, and learns from it.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music

Dusty Hill RIP

Late last week one of the great rock-n-rollers passed away. Dusty Hill, the bassist and co-vocalist for ZZ Top, died in his sleep. What can one say about that band? For 50 years they provided some of the best music on classic rock radio.

Visually, the band had its forte. Dusty and guitarist Billy Gibbons had those extra-long beards (Texas goatees), which ironically, the band’s drummer Frank Beard didn’t have one. Early in the band’s tenure the boys would wear either Nudie suits or dirty coveralls. From the time the band released its iconic album Eliminator in 1983, Dusty and Billy were often seen with some visually creative and cartoonish guitars and basses on stage and on the popular videos (who can forget the white furry guitars that spun around in the video of “Legs”?). That album (as well as some successful videos on MTV) took ZZ Top from arena rock to pop music realm.

But even before that, it was a band that every fan of rock-n-roll loved. They could fit in with Southern Rock, Hard Rock, Pop Rock, and even some aspects of Punk Rock. It had that Texas sound. And Dusty was a big part of that. His slightly distorted bass guitar sound helped fill out the three-piece situation amazingly on stage.

Live shows were legendary. The band would often bring out farm animals on stage, and the shows would go on for hours. After the 80s success, it became a lot more flashy on stage, but still kept the music close to its Texas blues-rock roots.

Before Eliminator, ZZ Top had some classic rock gems. Think about it: “Tush,” Cheap Sunglasses,” and “La Grange” are continually played on classic rock radio, and has inspired so many to take up the guitar or bass. Dusty’s bass sound on those cuts were raw, heavy, and in-your-face! I always loved that he preferred the Fender Telecaster Bass, which is a bit different from the standard Precision Bass. The Telecaster bass was not contoured, had a Telecaster-style headstock, and was wired with a single-coil pickup, which was centered on the body. It gives a more midrange sound to the bass, which allows for those distorted harmonics without sounding muddy. Perfect for what ZZ Top ways doing as a three-piece band.

Dusty cited Jack Bruce of Cream (another classic three-piece rock band) and Jazz bassist Charles Mingus as influences, and it showed in his playing. He wasn’t content with just thumping on the tonic note, but wasn’t flashy either so that it conflicted with the lead guitar. Just listen to that guitar/bass crawl from E to G on “Tush.” Everyone recognized that as a ZZ Top move, even though it had been done dozens of times before. Dusty had an amzing ear for what his bass playing should do.

In the late 1970s, the band took a haitus, and Dusty actually took a regular job at the Dallas Airport. People would often ask if he was the guy from ZZ Top, and he would deny it. He had some difficulties along the way. In 1984 he accidently shot himself with a small derringer gun. In 2002 he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and in 2014, he had an accident in the tour bus, which forced him to bow out of a performance, and the band’s guitar tech Elwood Francis sat in on. Dusty had later told Billy that if something should happen to him, Elwood should take his place. The band is currently planning on continuing with Dusty’s wishes.

I cannot count the number of times that I have strapped on my bass guitar, put on one of my ZZ Top albums, and played bass along with the record. Dusty had a groove that controlled the way the song would go, yet still letting Billy go all out on lead guitar. The “thump” of those fingers on the strings was like a sledgehammer. It was hard, forcing the beat along with Frank’s bass drum. I always found myself bopping my head while soaking in the bass line of “Tush” and “La Grange.” In short, THAT is how a rock bassist should play! If you have any questions, get a copy of 1973’s Tres Hombres, Fandango from 1975, or Deguello from 1979 and pay attention.

Thank you, Dusty, for keeping rock-n-roll in my blood all of these years. Your bass playing will be missed.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Bluegrass Fiddle Bluegrass Music

Byron Berline RIP

Last week right after I posted my blog, I learned about the death of Byron Berline, one of my favorite fiddlers. Having the status of being a Blue Grass Boy is enough reward for any bluegrass musician, but Byron went so much further with and without the fiddle in his life, that he would become a hero to many.

Byron was from Kansas, but spent most of his life in Oklahoma, where he picked up a Texsas Swing style to his fiddle playing. He went to the University of Oklahoma to receive a teaching degree in Physical Education, but soon joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He co-wrote the jam standard “Gold Rush” with Monroe, but was then drafted into the Army in 1967. After his two-year stint in the military, he went all-out with his fiddle playing.

Besides being a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Stephen Stills’ Manassas for a short time, he also recorded the famous fiddle solo on the Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk” from the Let It Bleed album. Along with a number of fiddle contest wins, he also helped form the bands Sundance, Country Gazette, and California, working with such luminary musicians as Dan Crary, Alan Munde, and Vince Gill. He also worked with Emmylou Harris, The Eagles, Elton John and The Doobie Brothers among many others.

He appeared on a number of documentaries, as well as some commercial ventures. He was a musician in the film The Rose with Bette Midler, and had a minor role in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he plays a member of the Enterprise that performs with an 18th century string quartet.

In 1995, Byron opened up a musical instrument store in Guthrie, Oklahoma called The Fiddle Stop, where popular jam sessions would happen constantly. While on vacation in Mexico in 2019, the shop was destroyed by fire, taking with it many of his prized violins. He would open a second shop across the street. However, on July 10 of this year, Byron passed away from complications of a stroke.

If one was to talk about the penultimate musician, Byron would be in that small group. He did everything that he wanted to do as a musician, all the time with that big grin on his face. He played traditional and progressive bluegrass music, but was not afraid to touch other genres such as country, rock, ragtime and Cajun. He performed with so many of the biggest names in the music industry. Add to that his getting to appear on a Star Trek episode, something every Trekkie dreams of.

Mostly, he was a legend with bluegrass fans. Not just for his amazing fiddle work, but Byron will be remembered for his continual pushing of the envelope with the format of bluegrass songs, while still holding the traditional structure close to his heart. Listening to his work, one can hear his one foot in the old-time style, while the other foot is splashing away in some psychedelic pond. A great example of this is his performance with California as they perform the newgrass composition “California Traveler.”

With Byron’s passing, I do hope that he realized how much of an impact he had on musicians, especially bluegrass fiddlers. Rest easy, sir.

Chew on it and comment.