Fiddle Me This

He has played with the Stones, the Byrds and Dylan, and later put Oklahoma bluegrass on the map for a generation of Oklahomans. Byron Berline lost his famous fiddle shop, a hub known around the country. But his story lives on.

story by Justin Fortney | photos by Trace Thomas

A couple of weeks ago, Byron Berline's legendary Guthrie Double Stop Fiddle Shop burned down. On Sunday, the Tower Theatre hosts a community fund-raiser to help this most storied Oklahoma musician and Bluegrass Festival founder. Info here. We take another look at Justin Fortney's interview with Berline from Issue no. 8.

Within the unending parade of those ordinary rituals — practice, performance, jamming, setting up, tearing down — one would be hard pressed to run into a local Oklahoma fixture who's given witness to more extraordinary, defining moments in the landscape of rock and roll than Byron Berline. 

Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, and Lucinda Williams have all set studio microphones in front of Byron, and they're just a few of the legendary artists one can pull out of his resume. When rock and roll and country music were just figuring out how to push forward together into the latter half of the 20th century, Berline was there playing his fiddle — a young man from tiny Caldwell, Kansas, living in Oklahoma, and leaving his fingerprints on classic albums like The Stones' Let It Bleed.

Imagine if you can (and we're sorry for you if you can’t) track three, a song about a honky tonk woman. A guitar starts off with a jangly riff, a car honks in the background, then a slinky fiddle line picks up the melody and carries the tune. By the time Mick Jagger enters with the lyrics, it's an afterthought. That fiddle was Oklahoma's Byron Berline.

“The Stones’ manager called me late one night. I’ll never forget that: “I'm with the Rolling Stones.” I said, “The magazine?” “No, no. The group.”

If you trace the lineage of Ryan Adams, The Avetts, or Sturgill Simpson, you’ll eventually make it back to a magic hour when Gram Parsons, Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan were lining up their bottles of lightning. They mined a mixture of genres to give pop music an authentic voice. And at the center of it all was Byron Berline, with his fiddle, sliding those high and lonesome notes into the fabric of rock and roll.

There's a certain Gump-esque storyline to Berline’s life; you almost can't believe all things he's witnessed. It’s a musician’s story that's compelling both for the moments of historical lore and for the subtle ways he's shaped the culture of places around him, including the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie.

Berline in his Guthrie Double Stop Fiddle Shop, which burned down in March.

Justin Fortney: What made you decide to put so much time and effort into the Bluegrass Festival?

Byron Berline: I got the idea from traveling to Europe and Japan, and every country had bluegrass bands...a lot of those folks would ask me what it's like to play in the United States, so I said, 'Why don’t we have an international festival where we invite groups from all over the world to come perform and see some of their mentors and people they’ve listened to?' The first year we had Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs, plus about eight international bands.

JF: The first year I came to the festival, Emmylou Harris was the headliner, and Sam Bush was playing mandolin for her.

BB: That was the second year. Sam Bush was with her. Jerry Douglas (renowned dobro player), too. Those folks were all friends that were just doing me a favor, which was really helpful getting us started.

JF: You knew Emmylou through Gram Parsons, right? (Parsons was a legendary member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers.)

BB: Well, I was on tour with The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1970 or '71, and Gram was on his own. He came to see us in Virginia. The night before, Emmylou had sat in with us at a place in D.C. called the Cellar Door. We were sitting in the dressing room in Virginia, and Gram said, "I wanna do some duets with a female singer. Know anybody I could do that with?" And Chris Hillman (Burrito Brothers) and I said, 'Yeah, we just played with this girl the night before,' and we gave him Emmylou's number. Well, she flew out to LA, and it worked. So then Gram OD'ed, died about a year or two later {Ed:in 1973}. We were talking with our manager shortly after Gram's death, and we said, "Go get Emmylou her own recording contract! She's that good!" They signed her and eventually got Elvis' players to record with her.

JF: You’re well known for playing with so many brilliant artists, including the Rolling Stones. I read somewhere that when you recorded for "Country Honk" (many mistake the song title as "Honky Tonk Woman"), the Stones had you record out on the sidewalk?

BB: It was at Elektra Studios in L.A. I played the part through a couple times, and I thought they didn't like it, maybe they were just gonna send me home. Then they said they wanted me to go out on the sidewalk and record. Nice ambience. Everybody back then was trying different things. Weird stuff.

It was like a big party. The Doors came down. Leon Russell was there. He played some piano a time or two with them back in those days. Robert Altman, the director, was there with Bonnie Bramlett, and he took a picture of her looking out the window at me playing on the sidewalk.

Gram Parsons got me that gig. He was hanging out with the Stones and Keith Richards, and he was trying to get them to do more country stuff. I was on the farm in Oklahoma at the time, and the Stones' manager called me late one night, I’ll never forget that: "I'm with the RollingStones." I said, "The magazine?"

"No, no. The group." I was planning on being in California anyway, in six days.They said no, we need you tomorrow. I remember what the airline ticket cost: $79. I thought it was high. That was 1969.

JF: All those amazing people you recorded with ... what were some that were most meaningful to you?

BB: So many of them were really interesting characters. Bob Dylan, you can imagine what that's like working with him. You have time for me to tell you about it?

JF: Yes. Yes, I do.

BB: 1972, maybe. I recorded with him on the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. So I went in, and Roger McGuinn (The Byrds) is playing banjo, Bruce Langhorne on guitar, and Bob Dylan on guitar, and I was playing fiddle. There was an instrumental we recorded called "Turkey Chase." Then he asked me if I could sing, and I said sure. So Dylan has me get around a mic with two gals and myself, and we sing the background vocals for "Knockin’ On Heaven's Door."

A lot of kids don't know about this now, but back then they put out things called 45s to play on jukeboxes, or you could buy 'em for $1. Shortly after that, I saw Dylan again, and he told me this story. He said—and he doesn't talk much—but he said, "I was coming through New Mexico on my way to L.A., and I had to get some fuel. So I stopped, put some gas in, went in to pay for it.

The guy behind the desk goes, "You're Bob Dylan, aren't you?"

"I am."

"We play your record in here on the jukebox all the time. We love it! That "Turkey Chase" is great!"

Well, "Turkey Chase" was on the back side of the "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" 45. Just an instrumental. They never touched "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," the hit. I thought that was funny.

(A customer walks in, chats with Byron about somethings she wants to buy, and eventually asks him if he ever met Kris Kristofferson.)

BB: Oh yeah. I had a group called Sundance. Kristofferson's producer with A&M Records said he liked our band’s vocals, so he asked if we'd come in and sing background vocals on Kris's album. "If you don't like Hank Williams, you can kiss my ass" – that was a song on there (laughs).

Anyhow, we go in there, and Kris has Wild Turkey and tequila, a quart in each hand. Plus he’s smoking a joint at the same time. He's in the control room. We're singing. How's he ever gonna know if we're singing on key or what? But he did! He was as sharp as he could be. I never seen anybody do that in my life. Guess who else came in the studio to sing with us? Gary Busey! It was quite a time.

(The conversation veers back to Bob Dylan)

BB: I was at Newport in '65, and we heard all this booing and commotion and carryin' on (as Dylan went electric). I thought, 'What is he doing?'

{Ed: hard-core folk fans famously booed Dylan off-stage for plugging in and copping out at the Newport Folk Festival.}

JF: Wait. You were there for Dylan at Newport?

BB: Yeah, my dad and I were invited. That's where I met Bill Monroe. (Byron would later join Bill Monroe’s band, The Bluegrass Boys.) It's funny how things fall into place.

All those sessions. All those relationships that led to gigs, that led to sessions, that led to so much brilliant music. I asked Byron if he and Gram and Chris Hillman and those cats had any clue at the time that they were creating music that so many folks now see as iconic ,legendary stuff.

"No way," he said. "We were just playing."