Byron Berline Band to swing Summer Breeze 2013 finale
By Doug Hill
“Those guys are actually older than I am,” Byron Berline said.
Oklahoma’s premier fiddle player was referring to the Rolling Stones who just concluded their “50 and Counting” tour in North America and UK. Berline knows he’s younger than the British rockers because of a gig he had with them in 1969. He contributed the sweetest fiddle solo and accompaniment you’re ever likely to hear for “Country Honk” on the Stones’ seminal “Let It Bleed” album. It was just one highlight in a career spanning over 40 years and also like the Rolling Stones, Berline is still going strong.Unlike most of those chaps, save Charlie Watts, he has been married to just one woman during those decades. Berline and wife Bette celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary Aug. 23.
He will be bringing his band to Norman Sept. 8 for the season’s final Summer Breeze concert.
“In Lion’s Park we’ll be playing traditional bluegrass, some cowboy music in the style of Western swing and our take on rock 'n' roll,” Berline said. “We enjoy entertaining people with our twin fiddle section and the rest of the show.”
It’s something he enjoys doing and has learned that if the band is having fun the audience will, too. Born in Caldwell, Kan., and raised in northern Oklahoma, Berline was 5 years old when he first held a violin in his hands. He came from a musical family who performed at county fairs, PTA meetings and house parties.
“My dad was a good old time fiddler and taught me how to play,” Berline said. “He was born in 1894 during the era when that was the main entertainment and you were pretty well sought after in your community for dances and such.”
From those beginnings Byron Berline became an important part of Oklahoma’s rich musical heritage as well as making a splash internationally. He joined bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys band and later relocated to California to play with The Flying Burrito Brothers. The list of top tier artists he has played with goes on for a country mile including Elton John, Rod Stewart, The Byrds, Vince Gill and Lucinda Williams just to name a few.
In 1995 Berline moved back to red dirt and opened the Double Stop fiddle shop in Guthrie. He started off hosting periodic jam sessions in an upstairs space over the store that has become regular every-other-Saturday evening concerts.
“We get a pretty good crowd from around Oklahoma and people traveling through for those shows,” Berline said.
In 1997 he organized the first Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie that has been held there every year since then.
“When I first moved back here I got the idea for a festival after seeing how there was a bluegrass band in each country when we toured in Europe,” Berline said. “I thought it would be neat to have one in the middle of the United States.”
It’s now a first weekend of every October tradition. Bands come from around the globe to participate including some unlikely bluegrass hotbeds.
“This year we have groups from Belgium, Japan, Switzerland, England and Texas,” Berline said. “Cassie Mattea is our headliner this year.”
Mattea is a multiple Grammy winning American artist with distinction in mainstream country, folk and gospel music. The 2013 festival (OIBF.com) is scheduled for Oct. 3-5.
“I’m excited about coming back to play in Norman because we haven’t done it in two or three years,” Berline said.
It’s always a homecoming for the University of Oklahoma alumnus who graduated with a physical education degree in 1967.
“I always love playing for the Norman crowd,” he said. “I just seem to connect with them; it’s a very enjoyable place to play on those Sunday evenings in the park.”
It’s a gig Berline has done on multiple occasions. In April he released an autobiographical book detailing his life as a performing musician titled “Fiddler’s Diary” (New Forms Press, 2013) co-authored with Jane Frost.
“Bette kept a diary starting in 1969 when we moved to California of every gig played and all the details, which came in very handy,” he said.
As Berline noted, the book is about his life “…Up to now.” You can observe him continuing to make musical history Sept. 8.
If You Go
What: Byron Berline Band in concert as the Summer Breeze Concert Series season finale.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8
Where: Lions Park, 450 S. Flood Ave.
Byron Berline playing Sooner Theatre, Nov. 2, 2002