RIP Byron Berline, fiddler who seemed larger than life

Sometimes we bid farewell to incredibly gifted musicians, once-in-a-generation talents who leave an indelible imprint on our music.

And sometimes, we say goodbye to incredibly kind and loving people, who leave an indelible imprint on our hearts.

Byron Berline, who died Saturday at 77 — just four days after his birthday — was both of those. His resume, his kindness, and his talent made him seem larger than life. That makes his passing, after a short hospitalization, sting even more. Berline had suffered a stroke a few weeks ago, and while in recovery, encountered a number of complications which weakened his heart and lungs to the point that he slipped away on Saturday evening.

Anecdotes and first-hand stories poured in late Saturday and all day Sunday, from well known musicians and casual fans alike.

“He was the quintessential bluegrass gentleman, superb musician, wonderful human being, and hero to so many bluegrass musicians and fans,” said bandleader Greg Cahill of Special Consensus.

We like to claim Berline for bluegrass, and indeed his bluegrass resume alone would make him one of the greatest fiddlers we’ve known. He played, briefly, with Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, and had stints with the Dillards, Dillard and Clark, and others before co-founding Country Gazette, one of the most powerful instrumental bands to grace bluegrass stages. With him on stage, his later group, California, won three straight instrumental band of the year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. He later toured with his own band.

Berline was a walking encyclopedia of fiddle tunes, some that he learned, some, like Huckleberry Hornpipe that he wrote, all that he mastered and passed along to new generations of bluegrass and old time performers. Along the way, he won the national fiddling championship three times, was elected to the National Fiddlers Hall of Fame, and received a Distinguished Achievement Award from IBMA in 2012.

Berline will one day join the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Alas, that honor was not bestowed while he was alive to enjoy it.

But those are merely his bluegrass accomplishments. As banjo player and bluegrass DJ Ned Luberecki put it, “Byron had the greatest and most diverse musical resume one could imagine.”

He played with household-name performers in other genres, including Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan, members of the Byrds, and the Rolling Stones. Check out his sidewalk fiddle work, complete with blaring car horn, on Country Tonk on the Let It Bleed album. The song will sound familiar to even casual Stones fans. A later arrangement, with a new title, Honky Tonk Woman, became a hit.

But all of that still only gives your part of the story. He also popped up in movies, including The Rose, starring Bette Midler, Stay Hungry, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Junior Bonner, featuring Steve McQueen. His resume includes television roles as well, including a brief, fiddle-playing appearance in a first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. That episode, fittingly, was titled, Where No One Has Gone Before.

Berline continued to tour, including a few post-COVID shows in support of his three-CD homage to fiddle tunes that came out earlier this year. Those recordings were set to come out a few years back, but were delayed by life-altering events. First, on February 29, 2019, a devastating fire destroyed Double Stop, his pride and joy music shop in Guthrie, OK. Bent but not broken, Berline and his wife, Bette, opened a new shop across the street. Then, of course, came COVID and the temporary halt to all things music.

Through it all, Berline kept up his cheerful demeanor. He wasn’t Byron Berline, superstar. He was a guy who enjoyed making music and always — always — taking a minute for someone with a question or a request for a photo.

Among the many stories being told today about Berline, one of my favorites comes from my friend and songwriting partner, Gordon Roberts. Roberts supplied strings for Berline’s Double Stop shop, and could have become just another voice on the end of the phone. But Berline knew Roberts played guitar, and when they would meet in person at fiddle events or music conferences, they’d end up picking for hours in a hotel room, with a bunch of aspiring young fiddle kids crowding in, soaking up some wisdom and enjoying breathing the same air as a master.

Many of stories about Berline’s life can be found in A Fiddler’s Diary, in which he teamed up with Jane Frost. The entertaining book was published in 2013.

Berline would blush at many of these memories and characterizations. But he is worthy of the memories and all the accolades that will be thrown at him in the coming days.

Long ago, a journalism professional warned me against using the word unique. No one and no thing is unique, he said. But I think that’s the perfect word to describe someone who repeatedly went “Where No One Has Gone Before.”

RIP, Byron Berline.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.