If you have learned, have been learning, or are just starting to learn to play the fiddle, you know that it is a difficult instrument to conquer. It has to be said that a person really never learns all there is to know on the fiddle, because like all musical instruments, you never stop learning (unless you quit playing).
There is a reason that the would-be beginner fiddler in the family is relegated to practice in the bathroom, basement, or wood shed outside the house. And it’s on record that sometimes the spouse learning the four string (sometimes five) wood and wire contraption ends up in the “dog house.” Learning the fiddle has been known to introduce another dimension of irritation into marriages. And there are known and unknown reasons why the fiddle has been referred to as, “The Devil’s Box.”
Be that as it may, in the year 1944, a person was born that eventually made the sound of his fiddle something that is music-in-the-ears to folks that appreciate fiddle music. That person is Byron Berline.
Sometimes you only hear or read about a thing or occurrence once, never again to be repeated. That’s the case when I heard about a recent book, “Byron Berline, A Fiddler’s Diary.” If you’ve been following bluegrass music throughout the years you probably know who Byron Berline is, and that he is a fiddle player who has graced the main stage at the CBA Fathers’ Day Festival held at Grass Valley, California (which has occurred for the past thirty-nine years). Byron has played the CBA FDF at least three times, but those three times are almost like three grains of sand at the beach compared to the number of other places he’s performed; which I found out from reading his book.
“A Fiddler’s Diary,” begins with “Forwards” by Mark O’Conner (fiddler), Douglas Dillard (banjoist), John McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Herb Pederson (Musician/Performer), Ranger Doug (Riders in the Sky), Mason Williams (musician, composer, writer, musician), and other noteworthy individuals in the roots music business. Reading what the aforementioned musicians wrote definitely motivated me to keep reading.
Byron’s book starts by letting us know that he came from a musical family, and that he started playing the fiddle at age five, growing up on the family farm in Oklahoma. He was ten years old when he entered his first fiddle contest, and from there he went on to enter and win many contests throughout the years. Bryon entered his last fiddle contest, The 1970 National Old Time Fiddle Championship in Weiser, Idaho, and won his division (his third win at this contest).
The book goes for seven chapters, eighty pages, telling the reader about Byron’s fiddle experiences on the farm, during high school, at Oklahoma State University, meeting and recording with The Dillards, The Newport Folk Festival, life in the U.S. Army with a fiddle instead of a rifle, and being a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. There are many funny stories about Bill Monroe that have been told, and at one point Byron relates that Bill couldn’t pronounce “Byron” quite right. So Bill called Byron, “Barn.”
After Chapter Seven, the “diary” portion of the book begins, starting in 1969 and going through 2010. Turns out Byron’s wife, Betty, kept detailed notes on the who, what, where, when, how, and whys of Bryon’s playing (what a gal!). At first glance the next 300 pages of the diary section appear to bog down in copious journal entries, but that is not the case. If the reader sticks with it, the potential to find more than a few “gold nuggets” is staring you in the face. Here are a few highlights, brief in nature, but some have noteworthy short stories to go with them (you have to dig for ‘em yourself in the book).
Bryon recorded and/or played fiddle with The Byrds, The Dillards, The Rolling Stones, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Dillard Expedition, Linda Rondstadt, The Kentucky Colonels (sometimes at Clarence White’s house), Country Gazette, Flying Burrito Brothers, Stephen Stills, Emmy Lou Harris, John Denver, The Eagles, and a bunch of others you can read about. Byron also played on sound tracks for a number of different movies, and appeared in some (“Fiddler on the Roof” was not one of them, but “Star Trek” was). During this time Byron was the go-to-fiddler in Los Angeles and Hollywood for records and movies. Like I related, there are many good stories to go along with the above, including his world-wide music performances playing his fiddle in bands.
Byron now resides in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where he owns the Doublestop Fiddle Shop, and he produces about twenty shows a year at his Music Hall in Guthrie, and still does some touring. If you are a fiddler, or just interested in an accomplished fiddler’s world, this book that follows the music career of Byron Berline, one of the world’s premiere fiddle players, is a good read.*
“Do your young men still fiddle with thoughts of growing rich?
And slowly turn to old folks, whittling on a stick?” Those two lines are from the song, “Arkansas.” They do not apply to Byron Berline!
(*information in this column from, “Byron Berline, A Fiddler’s Diary,” used with permission from Byron Berline. No financial interest on my part)