Bluegrass fiddler brings lifetime of experience to McSwain stage

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office

ADA, Okla. – It’s not often a world famous musician who bolstered an entirely new musical genre is available to give you a live performance.

Three-time National Fiddle Champion Byron Berline extends that opportunity 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 9, at the historic McSwain Theatre, 130 W. Main Street, Ada, Oklahoma.

On the corner of Oklahoma Avenue and Wentz Street, Berline’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall has stood tall since 1995. Hand-crafted instruments – some centuries old – hang on nearly every wall.

Photographs, records, awards, books and mementos fill any space a fiddle, guitar, mandolin or banjo doesn’t fill.

Stepping inside, you might find the 73-year-old Berline manning his post behind the front counter.

He might tell you only 70 years ago a new sound – with roots deep in the soil of America – sprouted up with rich vocal harmonies and a flurry of picking, strumming, plucking and bowing.

This convergence of musical styles is called “bluegrass.”

Settlers and immigrants coming to the land of opportunity brought their music with them, including Irish jigs, reels, British ballads, waltzes, gypsy instrumentals and hauntingly beautiful folk singing.

Some of these newcomers settled in North America’s Appalachian region, where sounds and songs mixed and stewed among the mountain folk. You can hear the echoes of these times in today’s bluegrass music.

It wasn’t until the 1940s when the multicultural concoction made its way down out of the mountains and into broad popularity. And it wasn’t until the mid-1940s when Berline’s story intersected with bluegrass.

By the hands of only a few musicians – among them mandolinist Bill Monroe, banjo players Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, and master guitar flat-picker Lester Flatt – bluegrass was introduced to the masses.

With its burst of popularity, a young Berline soaked in more than a few bluegrass tunes over the radio while growing up where southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma meet just west of Interstate 35.

It was in Caldwell, Kansas, Berline’s father introduced him to the fiddle. He showed young Berline how to play “Mississippi Sawyer.”

“It was the easiest tune my dad knew at the time, but it wasn’t really easy,” Berline said. “He’d just show me. He’d play it and say ‘here, look at me do it. Now you do it.’”

These early days are when Berline picked up some of his father’s unique fiddling techniques. It’s when he began playing by ear. ‘You have to feel it,’ Berline’s father would tell him.

“You have to listen to it, get it in your head and then go from there – especially with bluegrass.” Berline said. “It’s like a poem or song. You don’t want to read it constantly, you want to know it enough to be able to express yourself with it.”

The 1940s were winding down while Berline’s lifelong relationship to the genre was winding up.

“I remember always being around music growing up. We grew wheat and raised purebred shorthorn cattle on a farm and ranch,” Berline said. “We’d listen to the radio and I’d hear people like Bill Monroe and (Western Swing innovator) Bob Wills. We would listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry.”

It wasn’t all merely listening. The Berline family performed anywhere they could find a stage.

Berline and family found their way to fiddle contests in Oklahoma and Kansas. At contests, he first met other players and learned new tunes.

“I went to my first contest at 13 and met Buster Jenkins, which was his stage name. Frank Canard was his real name. He inspired me a lot,” Berline said. “He taught me how to play “Black Mountain Rag” and taught me how to tune the fiddle. He said, ‘You’re gonna be a good fiddler someday.’”

In 1962, the University of Oklahoma awarded Berline an athletic scholarship. He had a knack for throwing javelin.

But it was his knack for the fiddle and a chance encounter with The Dillards (probably best known as “The Darlings” on The Andy Griffith Show) during a campus show. It was by happenstance Berline’s life path was changed.

He remembers the time and place clearly.

“I’ll never forget, the first day I got on the show was Nov. 22, 1963 – the same day President Kennedy was killed. That’s the same day I met the Dillards,” Berline said. “They were the most unbelievable bluegrass band I’d ever heard.”

He said they jammed together on campus that afternoon during the show “Friday at 4.” Afterward, the group invited him to perform with them at an off-campus show later that same night.

The next week, he returned to campus with his father’s tape recorder and the Dillards were back for more.

“We recorded a bunch of fiddle tunes. They asked me to record an album with them. They had to fly me out to California. It was their third album called ‘Pickin’ and Fiddlin’’ from 1965,” Berline said.

That same year, he and his dad were invited to attend the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. It was there Berline met the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Bill Monroe.

For anyone counting, this makes two life-altering chance encounters for Berline in a year. Being at the right place at the right time was only half the battle. Luck only goes so far, but Berline had the skill on the fiddle to take him the rest of the way.

“When I met Bill Monroe I knew who he was. I had listened to him on the Grand Ol’ Opry all this time. He started the first bluegrass band in 1946 with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Cedric Rainwater,” Berline said.

“He was the guy – I mean, he was the guy to learn from. It was going into the major leagues playing with him. So when he asked me to join his band, I thought it was great,” Berline said.

Problem was Berline hadn’t yet finished his degree at the University of Oklahoma. He told Monroe to come back around in two years. Monroe did in 1967 and Berline made his way to Nashville on a new musical adventure.

But not before marrying his college sweetheart, Bette.

“She was from Guthrie. I met her at the University of Oklahoma,” Berline said. “I was a senior and she was a graduate student getting a degree in piano. She loved sports and music and that’s what I love, so we had a lot in common. Still do.”

Alongside Monroe, Berline wrote songs and learned new ones. These songs are still among Berline’s repertoire when performing biweekly in Guthrie; tunes such as “Gold Rush,” “Virginia Darlin’,” or “Sally Goodin.”

It was a nice gig, but it didn’t last as long as Berline might have hoped. In September ’67, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

“I was very lucky, because I got to play the fiddle and throw the javelin in the Army,” Berline said. “Being a draftee, a lot of my friends went off to Vietnam. Some came back and some didn’t.”

Berline caught a lucky break in basic training. He was assigned to organize and perform music during family day. He scoured the ranks looking for capable musicians but came up empty-handed.

“So I called up my friends the Stone Mountain Boys out of Dallas, Texas. They brought me a fiddle and came to Fort Polk, got there about 8 o’clock and the show started at 9,” Berline said.

“We went up, played every fast thing we knew. People went crazy,” Berline said. “The colonel came running to me afterward and said ‘Ah, you gotta play for the officer’s club! You gotta do this, you gotta do that!’ He went on and on,” Berline said.

The day before he was discharged, Doug Dillard telephoned Berline and asked him to come to California and work up some recordings alongside Gene Clark.

In 1969, Berline and his wife moved west. This kicked off the years Berline spent writing fiddle music for movies and performing with a bunch of noteworthy bands.

Berline’s musical touch can be heard on shows and movies such as: “Star Trek,” “Blue Collar,” “Back to the Future Part III” and “Run Simon Run.”

Living and working in California allowed for recording gigs with bands like The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Willie Nelson.

All of this didn’t stop Berline from forming and performing with a whole slew of his own bands, including “Byron Berline and Sundance,” “California,” “Berline, Crary and Hickman,” and “Country Gazette.”

In 1995, he and his wife decided to leave California. They returned to Bette’s hometown.

“I had already done what I needed to do in L.A. I wanted to find a store and music hall. I wanted to concentrate on having my own place to play and having a place I could house these instruments (collected since 1987),” Berline said.

The Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall became everything Berline needed. Every instrument had its space and Berline had plenty of time to write new songs. He guesses he has two CDs worth in his pocket right now. And every two weeks, he and band buddies from decades back get to perform.

The Byron Berline Band consists of Steve Short on drums, Richard Sharp on bass and lead vocals, Billy Perry on banjo and dobro, Greg Burgess on fiddle, Thomas Trapp on guitar and Berline on fiddle and mandolin.

Their performance at the McSwain Theatre is one Berline happily anticipates.

“I always enjoy playing there. It’s such a state-of-the-art place now. It’s really nice,” Berline said. “It’s always fun to play places like that and meet new people, friends and fans.”

For McSwain Theatre ticket information, contact 580-332-8108 or visit