Country rock and bluegrass fiddle legend who co-founded Country Gazette.
Renowned fiddle player, and sometime mandolin picker, Byron Berline died on 10th July from complications following a recent stroke. As a musician, he was able to straddle the worlds of bluegrass and country rock and it was his work with the Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Bob Dylan that brought him to the attention of a wider audience, while his work with Bill Monroe, The Dillards, Country Gazette and his own recordings cemented his bluegrass and newgrass reputation. He almost singlehandedly brought the sound of bluegrass fiddle to the attention of rock music fans as they started exploring the emerging genre of West Coast country-rock. Such was his reputation in the early ‘70s that when he formed Country Gazette with bassist Roger Bush in 1971, this group of bluegrass musicians were able to land a deal with a major record label, United Artists. He continued to play music and sessions throughout his life and while his later music may not have seemed quite as revolutionary as his earlier work, this is simply due to the fact that he had helped move the bluegrass genre forward while still maintaining and recognising its traditional essence, and his style of music became part of the norm.
Byron Berline was born on 6th July 1944 in Caldwell, Kansas, but grew up in Oklahoma to a farming family. Both his mother and father were musical and he took up the fiddle when he was five. His reputation started to rise in 1965 when he won The National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest, something he did again in 1967 and 1970. He had struck up a friendship with the Dillards and appeared on their homage to traditional bluegrass, ‘Pickin’ and Fiddlin’’, in 1965 while still a student at The University Of Oklahoma. He joined Bill Monroe in 1967 after finishing his education and wrote the bluegrass standard ‘Gold Rush’ with him. His burgeoning career was interrupted at the end of 1967 when he was drafted. On his discharge from the army, he joined Dillard and Clark and played on 1969’s ‘Through the Morning, Through the Night’. It was because of Byron Berline’s relationship with Doug Dillard that Gram Parson recommend him to his then new friend Keith Richards, when The Rolling Stones were looking for a fiddle player during their Los Angeles recording sessions for ‘Let It Bleed’. Byron’s Berline’s solo on ‘Country Honk’ added a touch of authenticity to The Rolling Stone’s sound.
He had moved to California after leaving the army and found himself at the start of country rock playing various sessions for the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Manassas, among many others, and in 1971 he formed a group that is one of the founders of the country rock genre, and subsequently americana, Country Gazette, with ex-Kentucky Colonel Roger Bush. The band built on what the Dillards had started and mixed bluegrass and country with rock instrumentation, as well as covers of contemporary songs, and therefore continued the development of the West Coast bluegrass sound. They were also a key influence on the just emerging newgrass genre. Berline and Bush were asked to tour with Chris Hillman’s Flying Burrito Brothers and they both appeared on ‘The Last Of The Red Hot Burrito Brothers’, which was the last Burrito’s album before Chris Hillman disbanded the band and it reflects Hillman’s love of bluegrass. It is a great live album and it proved to be particularly popular in Europe and Country Gazette were able to build on this to establish a sizeable European fanbase of their own. Their second album from 1972, ‘Don’t Give Up Your Day Job’, is a recognised country rock classic.
Byron Berline left Country Gazette in 1975 and moved to Los Angeles with the intention of securing more session, film and soundtrack work. He also formed a relationship with banjoist John Hickman and guitarist Dan Crary and recorded a number of albums with various configurations into the ‘90s. His group California was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Instrumental Group Of The Year in 1992, 1993 and 1994. He returned to Oklahoma in 1995 and opened the Double Stop fiddle shop in Guthrie. He also instigated the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in 1997 and continued to record and tour internationally with The Byron Berline Band.
For many listeners of a certain age Byron Berline, along with Vassar Clements, will always be the sound of bluegrass music because of the many legendary albums he appeared on as country rock was beginning to form. While his music, when played in a rock context, was often viewed as authentic and representative of an older tradition, he was one of the first bluegrass musicians to determinedly move the music forward by bringing in new and contemporary influences and to the bluegrass community he is seen as a moderniser who fully understood his music’s deep roots.