"How country do you want this?"
~ Byron Berline ~
So you pick up an instrument and there's just no telling where it might lead. The sound of the fiddle can quickly fill your chest with joy from a thousand endless summers...and just as quickly break your heart with tears from a thousand goodbyes. All from a single draw on the bow.
Byron Berline is a homespun memory-sparker. Sure, he can "Orange Blossom" the bejeezus out of your ears all day long. That's a bluegrass given. And if you want, he can saw off an elbow-bending solo that demands you either hang on or fall off. He does it. But even better are the beautiful fills Byron lends to a song...adding just the necessary shine without changing the intent. Sounds easy...but it ain't. From Bill Monroe to The Rolling Stones...Byron Berline has padded his resume quite nicely. He's a solid definition of a cool fiddler breeze. And he has led a pretty extraordinary life.
BYRON BERLINE INTERVIEW - JULY 2015
Casey Chambers: Byron, you received an invite to play on The Rolling Stones' song..."Country Honk" off their classic album "Let It Bleed." Would you tell us a little bit about how this rock coup went down?
Byron Berline: Well, I had just gotten out of the army. I had been playing with Bill Monroe. I was down in Louisiana and was lucky enough to get into special services, so I was able to keep playing the fiddle.
The day before I got out of the army, Doug Dillard called me and wanted me to come out to California and record with Dillard & Clark on their second album. And so I did.
"Polly" - Dillard & Clark / "Through The Morning, Through The Night" (1969)
While I was there, I ended up doing a few other sessions and things and they asked me to move out there and join their band. I thought, 'Well, better than going to Nashville and back to whenever I played with Bill Monroe.' Which I thought I was gonna do. Just go back to Nashville. So I said, 'Okay, I'll move.' My wife, we were married at the time, we moved to California.
It was there I met Gram Parsons. He was playing with The Flying Burrito Brothers at the time. And little did I know, he was hanging around with The Rolling Stones. Especially Keith Richards.
He was trying to get them to record more country sounding stuff, y'know? So when the Stones decided to recut "Honky Tonk Women"...they thought about putting a fiddle on it. So Gram recommended me to do it.
And I'll never forget. I had gone back home to get my furniture and stuff for us to move out to California and I got a call at my farm in northern Oklahoma. They called and asked me to come out there. I said, 'Well, I'll be out there in about six days. Will that work?' And they said, 'No, you have to be out here tomorrow.'
So, they flew me out from Oklahoma City. Phil Kaufman, who was their roadie at the time, picked me up at the airport.
We went up to this house on Doheny Drive in Hollywood and they were all hanging out up there.
We went down to Elektra Studios on La Cienega Boulevard that afternoon and I listened to the track. They said give it a try and see what I could do with it. After I went over it a couple times in the studio, they said, 'Come on in, 'Line'. I thought...oh, they don't like it. They're gonna send me home. (laughs)
So, Glyn Johns and Mick Jagger said, 'We think it'd be good if you went out on the sidewalk and recorded your part.' They put a microphone and a speaker outside where I could hear the track. By this time, all the members of The Doors had shown up. Bonnie Bramlett was there. Leon Russell was there...which I didn't know who he was. They were all just standing around, while I'm playing this track out on the sidewalk in front of the studio.
"Country Honk" - The Rolling Stones / "Let It Bleed" (1969)
I went through it about five or six times. And the last time I went through it...it was getting about dark then...my bow slipped a little bit. And they said, 'That's the one we like.' I said, 'Did you hear the bow slip?' They said, 'That's alright. We liked that.' (laughs) And that was that.
I went back in the studio and Keith and Mick were there doing some vocal overdubs. I got a little bored with that, I guess, and asked if I could borrow a car. I wanted to go see Doug and Rodney Dillard. I knew where they were and they weren't too far away. So they gave me the keys to a limousine and I took off and picked those guys up. We went down to The Troubadour Club like we were somebody. (laughs) I remember Rodney saying 'Let me drive.' We're all smoking cigars and looking important, yknow? (laughs) It was funny.
There was a guy taking pictures of that whole session but none of them have surfaced. Not one picture except for one of Bonnie Bramlett looking out the window at me during the recording. You can see that on Facebook. But that's how that all came about. That was one of the first sessions I did when I was out there and it really helped me a lot.
Casey Chambers: I'd say that was about as good a start as one could ask. You also became associated with another iconic entity when you got a little face time on an early "Star Trek: TNG" episode. (for those keeping score, it was...S1-E5 "Where No One Has Gone Before" ) How did you make it onto the Enterprise?
Byron Berline daring Riker to get his trombone.
Byron Berline: Well, they were looking for a violinist or fiddle player. Anybody who could hold a fiddle and look like they knew what they were doing with it. I got a call from an agent who asked if I could head down to Paramount Studios and audition for a "Star Trek" scene.
I went down there and the first thing they want to do is look at you and see how you would look in one of their uniforms as a crewmember. They didn't even ask to hear me play or anything. They just wanted to see what I looked like. So I went home and later that evening they called and said, 'Be here early in the morning for makeup. You got the part.' And the guy that played Riker...
Casey Chambers: Number One...Jonathan Frakes.
Byron Berline: Yeah...he recognized me and said he'd seen me play with The Flying Burrito Brothers in New York City one time. And he was telling everybody on the set. (laughs) I thought it was pretty cool that he was into that kind of music.
It took all day long to do that scene and they had an amazing set on that show. You could get lost on the set. It was so huge. It was exciting. It sure was. A lot of people saw it when it first aired and said, 'Is that you?' I said, 'Yeah, it was.' (laughs)
Casey Chambers: And that wasn't the first time you had been in front of a camera. You made an appearance in the very successful film..."The Rose." (1979)
Byron Berline: Oh yeah. Bette Midler's movie. Harry Dean Stanton had a part in it, too. The director (Mark Rydell) actually had directed an earlier movie that Dillard & Clark kinda got kicked out of. It was a movie called "The Reivers" (1969) He dropped all the music and we dropped out of it, too. So when he did this one, he wanted to make up for it and hired us. It was a scene with Harry Dean Stanton, Bette Midler, Rodney and Doug Dillard and myself.
Casey Chambers: You released a wonderful album ..."Fiddle And A Song" (1995)...that was filled with skills and a whole lot of bluegrass fun. Plus it was nominated for two Grammys.
Byron Berline: It was. I had a lot of different people playing on the album with me. I got Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs to record "Sally Goodin'" with me. That was the first time those two had been in a studio together since the '40s! So that was a big event for them...and myself. There was Mason Williams. Vince Gill. Jan Brown. A bunch of different people, y'know? Everyone got along great. Thought it was a good idea to have'em all on "Fiddle And A Song" (laughs)
"Sally Goodin'" - Byron Berline / "Fiddle And A Song" (1995)
Casey Chambers: Another standout track from that album was "Sweet Memory Waltz." Tell me about that one.
Byron Berline: Oh yeah. Well I came up with that melody when I was backstage in Vegas. I was there at the Fremont or someplace. I just started playing it and thought I'll have to remember that.
Later, Jack Skinner, who was a bass player in my band...Sundance...he liked the melody and wrote some words to it. Took him about ten minutes to come up with the words. And he recorded it on his album. Then I redid it on mine and we had Vince (Gill) sing it. And people do like that song. A lot of people who play in fiddle contests do it. So...it's kind of nice to have your songs played by other people.
"Sweet Memory Waltz" - Byron Berline / "Fiddle And A Song" (1995)
Casey Chambers: Byron, you have played with beaucoup artists from Dylan to the Doobies...so I'm just gonna pick one to throw at ya...if you don't mind...and see what you remember. There's a lost gem on Elton John's..."21 At 33" (1980)...called "Take Me Back". You put a beautiful stamp on this song.
Byron Berline: Yeah, they called and wanted to know if I'd play on it. I remember the session well. When I went to the studio, Elton was there, of course. And he was really nice. I listened to the track and I asked him, 'How country do you want this? Do you wanna be able to smell the manure on your shoes?' And he said, 'That's what I want!' (laughs)
So I tried to play it as country as I could for him. And it got a nice review in People magazine, if I remember right... my solo on that. It was a long time ago. And Bernie Taupin, who wrote a lot of stuff for him, asked me to record an album with him shortly after that.
"Take Me Back" - Elton John / "21 At 33" (1980)
Casey Chambers: I'll have to track that one down. You got a "special thanks" nod in "Back To The Future III" (1990). How did you become associated with that movie?
Byron Berline: Well, it was right at the end. And it was an afterthought. They were in the studio winding down the whole thing. All the score for the whole movie. They had seen this ZZ Top song and thought, 'Boy, we could sure use some twin fiddles on this. Some banjo. Something to make it more bluegrassy or whatever.' So they called me and we got together. So I got Dennis Fetchet and myself. Can't remember the banjo player's name right now. Anyhow, we went in and did it real quick. And just like I say, they were already wrapping up the whole deal and thought they needed to get that on there. We did. It worked out.
Casey Chambers: Very cool. Speaking of bluegrass, every year you host the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie, Oklahoma. That sounds like a lot of fun. How did that come about?
Byron Berline: It is. I had the idea. I knew I was gonna move back to Oklahoma in the early '90s or so. And I had told Joe Hutchinson, who eventually became our state representative at the capital here in Oklahoma about the idea...and he thought it would be great to have an international event. Invite groups from all over the world to play bluegrass and, of course, have our own bluegrass artists from the United States play as well...like Bill Monroe and whoever and just make it a fun event.
Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival
When I did move back in '95, we got together and he never forgot me and we ended up doing it. Our first year was in 1997. Coming up this year will be our 19th festival. So that idea worked out really well.
Casey Chambers: Something to put on my bucket-list, for sure. You were also inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall Of Fame.
Byron Berline: Yeah, in 1999. Vince Gill and I and...yeah, that was kind of a big deal. Oklahoma's been really nice to me since I moved back. I've really enjoyed myself. I couldn't be happier living here.
Vince Gill & Byron Berline
Oklahoma Music Hall Of Fame
Casey Chambers: Now you were born in Kansas...
Byron Berline: Right. Caldwell.
Casey Chambers: Were you raised there, as well?
Byron Berline: No, I was raised on a farm in Oklahoma. My dad's dad did labor on a Cherokee Strip in 1893. And my dad was born out there on that farm. But Caldwell was our closest hospital...our closest schoolhouse. It's where we got our mail. We were right on the Kansas-Oklahoma line. The old saying goes...'Oklahoma claims he's from Kansas; Kansas claims he's from Oklahoma! (laughs)
Casey Chambers: What are some of your favorite albums?
Byron Berline: One that I'm listening to right now is a Suzy Bogguss album that she did of old folk songs. I just love that one. It was a great idea she had to record it. She's gonna headline our festival this year. It's a wonderful album. It's well done and I just really enjoy listening to it.
The most fun album I ever did...I had all these musicians together y'know...like Dan Crary. John Hickman. Skip Conover on dobro. Then I had Albert Lee, Vince Gill, and James Burton play on it. JayDee Mannes on steel. John Hobbs on piano. We just mixed it all together.
Casey Chambers: That would've been fun to sit in on!
Byron Berline: Oh, and Lee Sklar on bass was most important. He was really amazing on that. And we just sat around and put down a bunch of instrumentals I had written. It was just...I really enjoyed that a lot. Bill Monroe didn't like it much 'cause it had steel in it. (laughs) Anyway, it was a fun album. It's called "Outrageous" (1980).
"...a delightful session that easily stands up to repeat hearings." ~AMG
Byron Berline: We have The Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall here in Guthrie and we still perform every other weekend. People from all over come in all the time. We always have brand new people come in every time we play. We have a lot of fun. And we have a really good band.
The Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall (Guthrie, OK)
Casey Chambers: I can see a road trip in my future.
Byron Berline: There you go. And a lot of people from Wichita do drop by. It's only two hours away.
Casey Chambers: Thank you very much for taking the time.
Byron Berline: Thank you. Appreciate it.
The Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival
The Double Stop Fiddle Shop
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