ARTS: Fame and the Fiddle
Some men were born with music in their soul and an instrument in their hand. With that birthright comes a lifetime of plucking and stroking strings and passing on the magic.
Music legend Byron Berline, owner of Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall in Guthrie, was born in Oklahoma to music. His father played. His mother was a pianist and his siblings all perform. At 5 years old, Berline played his first tune on his first fiddle. “My dad played and my whole family played music,” he said. “I don’t ever remember not playing. I guess I gradually took a liking to it. That’s what kids do. All kids are drawn to music.”
That fascination and love of music carried on throughout a multi-decade career for the talented fiddle player. While growing up, he’d accompany his father to fiddle contests, performed at PTA events and showcased his talent at fairs and festivals. After earning a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma — as well as a spot throwing the javelin for the track team — Berline again found himself drawn to the flirts of the fiddle. “I started up a bluegrass band,” said Berline. “During that time, I met a group called the Dillards, and that opened my eyes to going further with music and making a living at it.”
The Dillards knew talent when they saw it, and they recruited the young Berline to record an album with them. That led to a gig at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, which led to a chance meeting with bluegrass great Bill Monroe. “He asked me to perform with him,” Berline said. “I knew how to use those opportunities when they came. I also knew you had to be practiced up and offer something they wanted. People used to say I was lucky, but it’s not luck, it’s being prepared to take those opportunities when they come.”
Although Berline doesn’t believe in luck, luck was on his side when he was drafted in 1967 for the Vietnam War. “I was lucky this time. A colonel heard me play, and he had me play for a general,” said Berline. “I was chosen for the entertainment leg of the Army and for its track team. When I was drafted, I got to do something I loved and entertain the troops.”
And just a day before Berline was discharged from a two-year stint with the Army, Doug Dillard of the Dillards made a call. “He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was getting out of the Army,” Berline recalls. “He said, ‘Good. I want you to come to California and record with us.’ “
From that point, Berline and his bride Betty packed up and spent 26 years performing and recording in California for a variety of bands and bluegrass groups. Besides performing with such notables as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Lee and Willie Nelson, Berline also recorded movie and commercial soundtracks, working with names like Henry Mancini.
He scored his first major motion picture in 1975, “Stay Hungry,” and appeared in other movies like “Basic Instinct,” “Star Trek” and “Back to the Future III.”
When not scoring for commercial work, Berline toured the United States, Europe, Japan, Northern Africa, China, Australia and the South Pacific. He was inducted into Oklahoma’s Musicians Hall of Fame, named Oklahoma’s Ambassador of Goodwill and was named the featured artist for the Violin Society of America international convention.
Finally, after accruing a collection of instruments, Berline was ready to settle down and open a store. “Betty and I were from Oklahoma, and her father had left her a house in Guthrie. All our family was here and I knew I couldn’t get a shop in California, so we decided to move back,” Berline said. “I didn’t have to ask Betty twice. So in 1995, we moved back, and that May we opened the shop.”
The Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall carries all stringed instruments in the violin family for beginners, professionals and collectors. From guitars, banjos and fiddles, the shop also offers repair services and lessons for all ages. Berline also conceived and planned the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival since its beginnings in 1997.
Above the shop, the Byron Berline Band holds concerts twice a month, open to the public. “We still perform. People keep asking when I’m going to retire. Why would I want to do that? I’ve been doing what I love for 40 to 50 years now.”
Because of his lifetime in music, the International Bluegrass Music Association presented Berline with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Nashville on September 27. “My plan is to keep playing until I can’t,” he said. “Why would I want to quit?”