This story is a contribution from Tom Dunning, a photographer based in Edmond Oklahoma who enjoys music, especially bluegrass and roots music. He is a former newspaper reporter and communications director with a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Now retired, he spends his time photographing musicians, festivals and sports.
Byron Berline’s death in July 2021, left a bass fiddle sized hole in the Oklahoma music community that will never be filled. His legacy lives on through his recordings and memories of live performances. But, perhaps his greatest musical contribution is his influence on younger musicians he played with on stage and in jams all over the world. Alison Krauss, Mark O’Connor, and members of Nickel Creek are among the first generation of musicians who learned from Byron as youths. From his move to Oklahoma in the 1990s until his passing, several young Oklahoma musicians learned from Byron, jammed with him at his shop, and shared the stage with him.
In Guthrie Oklahoma, Byron hosted musicians at weekly Saturday jams at his shop as locals, bandmates and passers by gathered to play music and learn from each other. These could have just been a showcase for the world-renowned fiddler’s talents, and that would have been fine. Byron’s talent was obvious and pickers and listeners knew they were hearing a legend. Toes tapped and heads bobbed.
But those jams were more than a Byron Berline showcase. The jams were a place where musicians of any level could join in and have fun and maybe pick up a tip or two.
Three musicians who benefitted from Byron’s experience have joined remaining Berline bandmates to form BBB and Legacy Grass, BBB being the abbreviation for the Byron Berline Band. The band’s mix of young and not-so-young musicians continue performing the fiddle shop shows, and play around the Oklahoma area, recently doing gigs at the Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kansas and the Oklahoma International Music Festival in Guthrie, Byron and his wife Bette’s home town. The band plays a mix of bluegrass, western swing, blues, and red dirt music They perform Byron’s tunes and standards with each band member adding their own touch on breaks.
Andrew Hunt, Jonathan Hunt, and Henry Burgess comprise the “legacy” part of the band joining the remaining members, Greg Burgess on fiddle and guitar, Richard Sharp on bass, Thomas Trap on guitar, and Billy Perry on banjo and resonator guitar. These veteran members have more than 150 years of playing experience, and most-recently shared the stage with musicians like Vince Gill, The Turnpike Troubadours, and Larry Gatlin. Sharp and Burgess each have more than 20 years experience in the band while Trapp and Perry have been members from around 10 years.
Brothers Andrew and Jonathan practically grew up at the fiddle shop learning from Byron and his band members, especially the late John Hickman, Byron’s longtime banjo player who also passed away in 2021. Jonathan, who primarily plays banjo in the band learned how to build and maintain banjos from Hickman. Jonathan plays a banjo he built after studying with Hickman.
“Pretty much the first day I heard Byron play in person, I thought he was the greatest fiddle player who ever lived,” Andrew Hunt said. “I really tried to emulate his style.” He said Byron provided them with the chance to be around other musicians and learn.
Both had regularly played the stage at Byron’s fiddle shop shows since they were children, as part of the Hunt Family Band with their parents. Byron’s influence was so great that both brothers and their wives returned to Oklahoma after living out of state for much of their high school and college years. Andrew lives in Guthrie and Jonathan lives in Stillwater, about 30 miles away.
“He was just amazing at giving people opportunities, especially for my brother and me. He gave us opportunities we would have never had before. He asked us to play at his festival (the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival) when we were very young,” Andrew said. “He said ‘I’m going to give you a set and artist badge and you can come and be around us,’ because he knew that being in that environment is how you get kids off the ground with music.”
All three legacy members say Byron’s kindness and willingness to play with them were the greatest gifts he gave them. Byron gave them an open invitation to jam with him at his fiddle shop any time. He was also willing to share his experiences and humorous stories from his career with the legacy members, leaving them with fond memories.
“It’s not so much Byron sat down and said ‘play these notes,’ It was just that he paved the way for us and other people throughout his lifetime. That’s just who he was,” Andrew said. We played a show at his shop, just a guest slot, when my brother was 9 and I was about 12. That first night, he took his mandolin and gave it to me and he wasn’t worried about his instrument. That’s just who he was.”
Henry Byron Burgess, Byron’s namesake who plays mandolin, is the youngest member of the band. The high school freshman is Greg Burgess’ son who also spent much of his life hanging out with Byron and the band. But, in 2020 when his school transitioned to remote learning due to COVID-19, daily trips from his home in nearby Edmond, Ok to Guthrie to pick with Byron enhanced his ability. Henry also says his interest in the mandolin accelerated after he saw Byron retrieve a 1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar from his safe after a fire destroyed the fiddle shop and most of its contents in early 2019. But Henry credits his time with Byron for turning him into a stage-ready picker. Henry now plays a mandolin Byron gave him, not the Loar, but one Byron regularly performed with
“To get to spend even a day with him was great, but then I got to spend a year and a half practically every day with him learning, playing all of his tunes, getting to hear things nobody else gets to hear, just watching him write a new tune every day it was amazing, and if I had not gotten to do that, I would not be nearly where I am as a player today,” Henry Burgess said.
And, he’s already developed into a talented picker. Henry recently shared the stage with John Moore, who he cites as one of his “mandolin heroes.” Moore was Byron’s bandmate in the band California with John Hickman, Steve Spurgin and Dan Crary.
“Byron really cared about passing the music along,” Andrew said. Through his own records and session work Byron Berline’s music will be celebrated worldwide. But, his kindness and acceptance of other musicians, regardless of ability, are his real legacy.