Shelby Eicher at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame (March 2018) – photo by Sandi Cooksey
Last Wednesday night was no different than any other Eicher Wednesday at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Shelby Eicher always has tons of talent, but that night was extra special, as Byron Berline, Nathan Eicher, Kentucky White, Robin Macy, the Cimarron songbird, Monica Taylor, and Eicher’s wife, Janet Rutland all took their turn in singing a couple of songs, and sharing their own personal stories of Bill Monroe. A night that will be tucked away in small place of my heart, a night that I saw a cavalcade of talents all within 500 square feet, and not even at a festival.
A founding member of the National Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Shelby grew up in Northwestern Ohio, in Wauseon. On his 5th birthday, Shelby was given his first fiddle and at 8, started with professional lessons. The first 3 years he was instructed by his grandmother, who had five brothers who were also fiddlers. Shelby began playing live music with his family (Shelby Eicher & The Fulton County Sand Sifters) at local square dances soon afterwards.
“I was taught formally to read music and play by ear. Most fiddle players play by ear and I was one of the first generations that could play both ways,” says Eicher.
Eicher’s interest in bluegrass began while in high school, an adventure that truly began with a decision to attend college in Claremore, Oklahoma. Claremore Junior college – now known as Rogers State College – offered a program in bluegrass and swing, the Hank Thompsons School Of Music. After graduation and obtaining a degree in music, Eicher packed his bags and moved to Nashville.
Playing with Jimmie C. Newman at the Grand Ole Opry was just a stepping stone for Shelby. It didn’t take too long for Mel McDaniels to zero in on his fiddling, and he began to travel with Mel. Within a 6 month time frame, Roy Clark had an opening for a fiddler, and Shelby applied for that job. Less than two months later, Shelby Eicher was known as the fiddler with Roy Clark. Immediately, Shelby was performing in Reno, Nevada and hitting the highways with Roy.
After traveling with Roy for 15 years (10 of that being on Hee Haw), as well as recording on 5 albums, performing on The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin Show, and The Grand Ole Opry, Eicher made a decision to explore music beyond the narrow pathways of commercial country. This gave Shelby the opportunity to be more artistic, and the ability to choose his own style.
Since his teen years, Shelby had been composing his own music, and this was his chance to expand his horizons to different genres. Shelby expanded his repertoire to include jazz, blues, gypsy jazz, Latin, dawg, American, rock, and western swing. Along the way, Eicher stood behind and played with some of the greats, like Leon McCauliffe, J.J. Cale, Cowbop, Hank Thompson, as well as do soundtrack work on several documentaries.
“It was during this time I produced an Old Time Fiddling CD to connect what I was doing to my roots. The next project was Dance of the Gypsies, which was all original compositions. A few years later I formed a great acoustic jazz quartet, Mischievous Swing, with two of my sons and we released a self-titled CD. One project I released is a star studded Western Swing CD of the Tulsa Playboys with Vince Gill, Roy Clark, Riders in the Sky, Wanda Jackson, Leroy Van Dyke, Becky Hobbs, David Frizzell and many more.”
Still playing with the Tulsa Playboys, you can also catch Eicher sawing away with the Cherokee Maidens & Sycamore Swing, as well as every Wednesday at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Eicher has three sons, all musically talented, and he shares the stage with them regularly.
Byron Berline, world renowned fiddle sensation, has his own repertoire that stands on its own. Berline shared stories of his time playing with Bill Monroe, and co-writing his famous bluegrass tune, Gold Rush. These first hand memories made the audience giggle, but it was when the twin fiddles broke out, that you could see the audience take on a different sense of wonder. Awestruck by the talents of Berline and Eicher, who decided on the spur of the moment who was playing harmony and who would take the lead, left an aura of intense respect in the room.
Berline has stood with the BEST of the Best, and is known to be able to play old time to ragtime, bluegrass, cajun, gypsy swing, western swing, rock and beyond. Known as the King of The Double-Stop, he was actually offered a job with Bill Monroe while he was still attending Oklahoma University, but Berline turned down the gig so he could finish his education as a Sooner.
Berline attended OU, where he was not only a football player, but also a track star. Graduating with a teaching certificate for Physical Education, Berline’s career in music literally took flight in 1967, when he joing Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys. But Byron, was drafted and left his music career in September of 1967 when he joined the US Army. During this short time span, Berline co-wrote Gold Rush with Bill Monroe.
After serving our country with pride for 2 years, Berline hit the ground running as he recorded with The Dillards. Being a three time winner of the National Old Time Fiddle contest (1965, 1967, 1970), in 1971 Berline joined The Flying Burrito Brothers recording two albums. In 1972, Berline, Alan Munde, Kenny Wruz, and Roger Bush became known as Country Gazette.
After a long and successful run with Country Gazette, Berline then joined forces with Dan Crary and John Hickman to form Byron Berline & Sundance. A young Vince Gill joined the band playing the mandolin. Later Berline collaborated with banjo player John Hickman and guitarist Dan Crary to form the band California. First it was Berline, Crary & Hickman; with the addition of Steve Spurgin and John Moore later, they became known as California. They were named the International Bluegrass Association Instrumental Group of the Year in 1992, 1993, and 1994.
In April 1995, Berline moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma, and hung his shingle at The Double Stop Fiddle Shop. From the regular jam sessions, he formed the Byron Berline Band, and hosts (along with wife, Bette) a bi-monthly concert series in his music hall upstairs. In 1997, Berline founded the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival, which is held every year over the first weekend of October. In his career Berline has played with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, Earl Scruggs, Dillard & Clark, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, John Denver, The Eagles, Rod Stewart, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and the list hasn’t finished being written yet.
Ken “Kentucky” White grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, so bluegrass music literally runs through his veins. Ken received his first banjo for Christmas on his 12th birthday. As a boy, his idols were Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe. Throughout his teen years, Ken and his sister, Lauren, played the “scene” in the regional music industry. One of his fondest memories is going to the KFC Bluegrass Festival in Louisville and hearing Berline play with Sundance.
A flat picker extraordinaire as well as a banjo picker, Kentucky will also amaze you with his harmony vocals. While still a teen, White held the honor of holding the Kentucky State Banjo picking championship, and then after high school, Tony Rice caught his ear and his interest switched over to guitar. Kentucky is stringed instrument talent at it’s best, with a mandolin championship as well.
At the IBMA convention one year, Kentucky noticed a cowgirl, and soon moved to Wichita, Kansas. One night he decided to go across the street to catch a little bluegrass. When he walked into the room, there was THAT cowgirl, Robin Macy (now his wife). Macy is one of the original Dixie Chicks. Together they evolved the band Big Twang.
Big Twang split after a short time, and then the original music of Macy’s become the forefront. From there, the duet came across the idea of The Cherokee Maidens and Sycamore Swing. When asked where the band name, Sycamore Swing, came from, Kentucky shared, “We live in an arboretum, and Robin is a tree lover, so she came up with the name.” After they began cleaning up the trees, they realized that there was something that they could be doing to share their beauty, thus Kentucky and Robin began a concert series at the arboretum, and recently have completed the details for 2018 series.
Kentucky also plays different genres of music, jazz, swing, classical, big band, as well as others. “Jazz is from my head, bluegrass comes from my heart,” he told us. As White and Macy sang a duet recorded by Emmylou Harris, you could truly see the harmonies enlaced with love. Byron shared after that song that he was actually in the studio when Emmylou recorded If I Could Only Win Your Love with Herb Pedersen. White and Macy have one son who is a jazz guitarist, and a phenomenal one at that. As the arboretum wakes up for the spring, White is the President of the Wichita Jazz Festival, which is held April 1 – 8. You can follow up on this at www.wichitajazzfestival.com.
Shelby Eicher hosted an outstanding evening of pure talent. Shelby, alone, is amazing. However, when you throw Byron Berline, Kentucky White, and Nathan Eicher in the mix, it’s a whole different combination. A compilation of talents extraordinaire and an evening that will be etched in my mind for decades to come is what happened to me last week at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa, Oklahoma.