Fiddler extraordinaire

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Byron Berline’s love for music started six decades ago; benefit concert for Special Care slated May 24

By Sandi Davis

When the phone rings in Guthrie’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop, bluegrass fiddle extraordinaire Byron Berline answers the phone with a simple “Fiddle Shop.”

On the other end of that call probably is someone asking about buying one of the many stringed instruments hanging on the walls or if they want something special, something tucked safely inside a vault.

But, it could be fellow bluegrass lover Vince Gill. In the past, he has fielded calls from Sir Elton John, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, the Eagles, Rod Stewart, the Band or even Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. He has played with all of them, and more.

He may come across as a good-ole country boy, but Berline has played with some of the greatest musicians in all music genres.

He currently fronts his own bluegrass band, and you can hear them in concert May 24 at Oklahoma City Community College. The show will benefit Special Care, a place where children of all abilities receive a chance to learn at their own pace.

In a recent telephone interview, Berline talked about his career, which includes more than two decades in Los Angeles and world travels before returning to Guthrie, his wife’s hometown, and opening his fiddle shop.

Berline has played the fiddle all his life, and because they are tuned the same, he’s as good on the mandolin.
His love of fiddle playing extends to the name of his shop.

“A double stop is two notes played together on a fiddle,” Berline explained. “Hopefully they’re in tune.”
Laughing, he continued.

“It’s all about playing scales. If you can’t play scales in tune, you can’t play a double stop in tune.”
He loves them.

The tall musician went to the University of Oklahoma on a football scholarship. He discovered he liked track better (it also gave him more time to play his fiddle) and switched, getting a degree in physical education.
He played the fiddle every time he could, and it would pay off big one sad Friday afternoon.

OU had a show called “Fridays at Four” that usually featured groups who were playing in Oklahoma City that night.
Bluegrass band The Dillard were set to play Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. They decided to go ahead with their show and afterward, Berline played for them.

He recorded with them in 1964.

That was the also the first year he won the national fiddling championship. He repeated as champion in 1965, and won again in 1970.

“I retired myself after the third one,” he said.
He may have stopped competing, but he has never stopped playing bluegrass.

He had plenty to do besides compete for titles. Word of his talent spread and he started playing with all sorts of bands.

In 1965, he was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival, and it was there he met his bluegrass hero, Bill Monroe.

After hearing Berline play, Monroe invited the young man to join his band, which he did. He was in it less than a year before he was drafted.

His prowess both on the fiddle and with a javelin kept him in the Army’s Special Services instead of sending him to Vietnam.
The day of his discharge, Berline was invited to Los Angeles for recording sessions with the Dillards. He also met and played with Gene Clark, a founding member of classic rock band the Byrds.

Berline and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 1969, playing with numerous bands and on many movie soundtracks.

The call from Rolling Stone member Keith Richards resulted in a cut on the album, “Let It Bleed,” “Country Honk.”
“I stood in the street and played and the honking cars you hear are real,” Berline said.

In the early 1970s, Berline was drafted to tour Europe with the Flying Burrito Brothers after half the band quit.
“We were really popular over there,” Berline recalled. “We were bigger than the Eagles there.”

Berline’s other band back then, Country Gazette, had a number one song in the Netherlands in 1973.

Berline gave a young Oklahoma City man with a big bluegrass talent and a beautiful tenor voice his first big job.
He hired Vince Gill to play with his band from 1977 to about 1980.

Gill used to be a frequent visitor to the bluegrass jams Berline held on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. These days, Berline takes Sunday off.

As you would expect, Berline knows the superstars in country music too. He met Merle Haggard years ago and was looking forward to seeing him at this year’s G-Fest in Muskogee. Haggard was set to headline the inaugural festival, scheduled June 16-18, but died April 6 this year.

Berline will play the festival June 18, and will include some Haggard songs in his set.

Berline used to give fiddle and mandolin lessons in person. These days, anyone wanting to learn a proper double stop can buy his “How To” DVDs. He has a rack full of CDs available and has MP3s available to download.
Right now, he is working on a double CD of all-original songs.
“I hope they will all fit on two CDs,” he said.

In 1996, Berline planned and had the first Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie the first Saturday of October.
Over the years it has gotten bigger. This year is the 20th annual festival, set for Sept. 29-30 and Oct. 1 in Guthrie.

At the May 24 show, Berline and band members — guitarist Jim Fish, bass player Richard Sharp, drummer Steve Short, banjo player Billy Perry, guitarist and fiddler Greg Burgess and Berline on fiddle and mandolin – will play everything from Western Swing, bluegrass, tunes from The Beatles, and for the first time, “Country Honk” by the Rolling Stones.

Special Care, at 12201 N Western in Oklahoma City, takes children from six weeks old until kindergarten and provides classes tailored to give each child to give them a good head start in regular school. It also provides year-round before-and-after school care for children starting at birth until age 21 as well as daily summer and holiday programs there. On-site are physical, occupational, speech and behavioral therapy for students who need them.

Kelli Dupuy, director of marketing and development at Special Care, talked about how proceeds from the May 24 show will be used.

“We are so thankful that Mr. Berline has selected Special Care to be the beneficiary of his concert in May.

Thanks to Mr. Berline, a portion of the proceeds of each ticket sold will support the high-quality early childhood education, specialized care and on-site therapeutic services we provide to children with and without special needs,” Dupuy said.

“With 200 children, ages birth to 21, it is support like this that goes a long way in providing outstanding care to these incredible children. We are so thankful to Mr. Berline for caring about Special Care and the children we serve,” she said.

Tickets to the May 24 concert at Oklahoma City Community College range from $17 to $36. For more information, call (405) 682-7579 or visit www.occc.edu. For more information on Special Care, visit www.specialcare.org or call (405) 752-5112.

For G-Fest information, visit www.gfestmuskogee.com or call (855) 414-6271.

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