Byron Berline, a renowned fiddler who played with bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe as well as rock legends like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, died over the weekend, according to news reports out of Oklahoma, where he owned a world-famous fiddle shop. He was 77. No cause of death was immediately given.
Berline was a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys — with whom he co-wrote and recorded the bluegrass standard “Gold Rush” in 1967 — before going on to become aligned with a generation of country-rockers as well as traditionalists.
He’s known to Rolling Stones fans for having played on “Country Honk,” a track on the band’s classic 1969 “Let It Bleed” album, and to Dylan enthusiasts for taking part in the “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” film soundtrack sessions. In the early ’70s, he briefly join the Flying Burrito Brothers and Stephen Stills’ Manassas.
Other artists Berline recorded with include Elton John, the Byrds, the Band, Gram Parsons, the Dillards, the Doobie Brothers, Lucinda Williams, Rod Stewart, Gene Clark, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs, the Eagles, Bill Wyman, Joe Diffie, Tammy Wynette and Doc Watson.
His own discography, as a solo artist or band member ran to more than 15 albums. He first recorded as a member of the Dillards in 1965, and by 1976 was recording as the frontman of his own band, Byron Berline & Sundance, the lineup of which eventually grew to include a young Vince Gill. Berline’s final album, “Flying Fingers,” came out in 2016.
Berline owned the Double Stop Fiddle Shop in downtown Guthrie, Oklahoma, where famous musicians like Marcus Mumford were known to stop in for a jam. The store burned to the ground in 2019, taking hundreds of invaluable instruments with it. “They all have souls and personalities,” he told Oklahoma City’s KOCO 5 after the fire. With the support of the community, he subsequently opened a new instrument shop and performance space across the street.
In the film and TV worlds, he had cameos in the Bette Midler feature “The Rose” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Of recording with the Stones, Berline recalled in a 1997 interview with BlueGrass West: “Gram Parsons suggested to them to get me to play on it, and I just barely knew him. This was in October of ’69… We went down to the studio, Electra Studios, in L.A. I was in the studio for a couple of passes through, and they said, ‘Hey, we want you to come in, we want to talk to you,’ and I thought, oh, they don’t like it, they’re going to dump it. But I went in and they said, ‘We want you to stand outside in the street on the sidewalk and record it . . . . we’ll get a nice ambiance, we think,’ and I kind of giggled and said, ‘Well, whatever you want to do.’ So that’s what we did. That’s where they got the car horn.”
He added, “People were just experimenting around with music, and mixing different instruments, you know, rock and roll with bluegrass instruments, traditional instruments. … It was a big change. The music is closely related, but you had to really study it in a way. Be able to improvise enough to get by with it. And naturally, playing with (Bill) Monroe, I listened as much as I could to his past recordings, to see what those fiddlers did, how they approached it. You couldn’t just get up there and start sawing away. You had to stay with the melody, and do what he wanted. He’d let you know if something was really off line. But for me he was easy to work with. Other people won’t say that, but I had a good time with him. He just loved the old time tunes. He always featured me on the Grand Ole Opry; every time we got on there; he’d have a fiddle tune.”
Berline flourished in L.A. after moving there shortly after doing the Stones session. “The Troubadour was a big melting pot,” he said in an interview with WMOT in 2019. “Every time I went down there in the evening, I don’t care what day it was, I’d get a session from it.”
In 2013, he published an autobiography, “Bryon Berline: A Fiddler’s Diary.” It goes without saying that the violin was the instrument he was renowned for, although he also played a considerable amount of mandolin on stage.
The same year he published his memoir, Berline was inducted into the National Fiddler’s Hall of Fame. In 2012, he received the International Bluegrass Music Associaton’s Distinguished Achievement Award.