Define the gift – Henry Byron Burgess

With grown children in their teens and above, Lynn Muir and Greg Burgess never expected “a surprise” to happen, but it did.  Discovering they were pregnant later in life may have sent them into a tizzy, with preparation of repeating the past, but the married duo eventually realized it was old hat. Gathering new baby things, and finding a name, the perfect name, was a joy that they spent months talking over.

Lynn wanted an older name that carried prestige, intertwined with the love of music and sports, and Greg, a fiddler with the Byron Berline Band, knew that his son was going to be named after Berline almost instantly. Lynn fell in love with the name Henry (think Hank Williams and Henry (Hank) Aaron), so they compromised, and decided that middle name would be Byron, a name chosen specifically to honor how much Berline meant to Greg.

Born on December 25, Henry was a gift from the beginning. A true miracle, as some would refer to him, and he spent the next 15 years of his life becoming who he is today.

At a very small age, Henry received a toy fiddle. There were many times when Berline would call Henry up on the stage to “play” his fiddle beside Burgess and Berline. Henry fiddled to everyone who would listen, accepting the applause with a bow.  Almost born with a fiddle, Henry was determined to play something. Growing up, that something was soccer. A very long distance from bluegrass, Henry thrived by kicking the ball and scoring, although music always provided a background to his childhood.

In 2019, Henry walked down the sidewalk to view what was left of Byron’s original Double Stop Fiddle Shop after it had burned nearly to the ground. His heart sank at the sight. Every bluegrass lover in Guthrie, OK will remember the day the fire department removed Berline’s safe from the debris.

As the safe cracked open, Byron’s hands were trembling.  He literally turned his back on his beloved Loar F-5, and went back to peer in on the damage, but with wringing hands, his heart was set on checking on the mandolin. After what seemed like hours, he finally opened the case to his infamous and very valuable instrument.

It was in almost mint condition, still in tune, and Byron looked up to heaven and thanked God. The impact this had on Henry was one he still feels today. It was at that moment that Henry’s love for the mandolin was born. That was when COVID (March 2020) changed the lives of all of us, and with it the axis changed in Henry’s life.

“Byron called and said, ‘Come on up to the shop, let’s jam!,” Greg tells us. He and Henry spent nearly every day during lockdown at the Fiddle shop. The three would arrive around 10:00 a.m. and jam until 5:00 p.m. This opened up more opportunities for the young student to learn from the master. “Byron taught me how to change strings and care for my mandolin, and about vintage instruments and their value. It was a time I spent gathering knowledge,” Henry shared. 

As an experienced musician, Henry’s father knew that the time had come for Henry to get a better mandolin. Lynn was not ready to spend that kind of money on an instrument, but Greg reassured her. “Think of it like a Volkswagen at the Indy 500,” he told her. ” Sure, the vehicle can make it around the track, but it wasn’t designed to run a race. Likewise, the instrument Henry currently has can play music, but Henry’s ability to pick is growing bigger than its ability to perform. If he’s going to continue to improve he needs a better instrument.”

The search began. And of course, the Double Stop Fiddle Shop was the first place to look. There, Greg found a Gibson mandolin that would be perfect, and Henry already had his eye on it. When Greg mentioned that he wanted to purchase it for Henry, Byron asked him to hold off. “I’ve got something in mind,” he said.

The next day Byron called Greg to say that he and his wife, Bette, had discussed it and they wanted Henry to have his mandolin. Greg was speechless. The family loaded up and headed to the fiddle shop. Henry was under the impression they were going to look at instruments and maybe they would consider purchasing one. When they arrived, Byron had Henry peruse the mandolins. Henry headed straight for the Gibson. After playing it for a brief time, Byron handed him another mandolin and asked, “What do you think of this one?”

“Oh… you know I love this one!,” Henry replied. “I know you do,” Byron said, having seen the young man gravitate to his custom Collings mandolin. “And that is why I want you to have it. It’s yours.”

Henry was in disbelief. It was Byron’s personal mandolin, the one that he played at every show. The day of the fire, Berline’s son-in-law was able to retrieve two things, Byron’s personal fiddle and his custom Collings mandolin.  These were the only two instruments unscathed in the fire. If this instrument could talk, oh the stories it would share!  

When we spoke recently, Henry handed me a pick. As I was holding it in my hand, Henry told me that it was a tortoise shell pick, and then informed me that it was Byron’s pick.  Byron had shared with this young man, the secret to sound has a lot to do with the way you hold the pick.  

Burgess prefers an acoustic mandolin but plays electric as well. Though Henry’s Collings is a prized possession, he only takes it out of its case (and into public) on rare occasions. Most recently Burgess recorded an album with Joe Kahlden, playing Byron’s Collings, and played it live at The Fiddle Shop in Guthrie at the release. “Every scratch on this mandolin is Byron’s and that makes it really special. I use Byron’s pick and my favorite tunes are Busy Bee, Sally Goodin, and Russian Concession.”

Although Henry is an up and coming bluegrass showman, he still finds time to be a teenager, and spends as much time as possible with his family, and his girlfriend, Cayden.

Henry is now an official member of The Hunt Brothers Band, and will take the stage at the Cottonwood Flats in Guthrie at the 2023 Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival. 

I asked Henry one final question. Was it the gift of the mandolin or something else that propelled his passion?  He replied, “The mandolin is so special to me, but sitting at Byron’s knee and learning from him, and having that year together along with his friendship, was the ultimate gift.”

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About the Author

Pamm Tucker

Growing up in Oklahoma, music runs throughout Pamm Tucker's veins. Her earliest memory of music is standing beside her Grandma's upright, singing. "Trust in The Lord". Little did the 5 year old realize that this was the foundation of things to come. Being very active in 4-H, Pamm was elected as reporter at the age of 9 and held this position for many years. Taking extensive journalism marketing and free-lance writing classes while attending college helped to spark her interest in being a journalist. Her skills helped her acquire the position of journalist for the Northern Oklahoma college school newspaper. An Oklahoma native and no stranger to music, she has performed with the likes of Lulu Roman, Jean Shepherd, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker (no relation) Gene Watson and Charlie McClain just to name a few. Even today you can find her tapping her foot to every genre of music.