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.