Bluegrass on the Prairie
To hear some the best mountain music in the world, you don’t even have to leave the Oklahoma prairie.
Olahoma native Byron Berline, three-time National Fiddle Champion, began playing the fiddle at just 5 years old. Following a successful music career in Los Angeles, California, Berline returned home to continue his passion for bluegrass in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Photo by James Pratt
Byron Berline played the fiddle long before he could even hold it on his own.
He enjoyed a rich career in LA and Nashville, working with famous bluegrass artists and even the film industry, before moving back home to Guthrie, Oklahoma.
He’s a Grammy-nominated musician who now owns Double Stop Fiddle Shop, where fans can enjoy fiddles from the 1600s and even live performances from The Byron Berline Band
A young Byron Berline could always be found playing “cowboys” in the fields of his family farm near Bramen, Oklahoma. Unlike other little boys, more often than not it wasn’t the dinner bell calling him home—it was the request of family and friends for him to play fiddle.
Berline was using the instrument long before he could even hold it all on his own. He barely reached his father’s knees when his dad would put his strong arms around him to help hold the bow. His father was born in 1894, and in those days, the best form of entertainment was a good fiddle player.
“Back then, fiddlers learned how to play from the neighborhood,” Berline says. “It used to be easy to tell where a fiddler was from based on the way he played, just like an accent.”
Listening is exactly how Berline learned. His father wouldn’t necessarily teach, but he would play a tune, like “Mississippi Sawyer,” and say, “Now you try.”
Playing for family and friends in their farmhouse living room led to entertaining pie suppers, parent teacher association meetings and eventually competing in fiddle contests across the country. At one such contest, a 13-year-old Berline heard bluegrass music for the first time. He was entranced.
“Like the old-timers would say, the sound gets into you like a rusty fish hook,” Berline says.
From his roots on Kay Electric Cooperative lines, that little boy has now lived to create a legacy that changed how the instrument is played. Described as the most inventive fiddle player in history, Berline adapts his sound to any type of genre, whether it’s folk or rock ‘n’ roll. His heart, however, belongs to bluegrass.
“Like the old-timers would say, the sound gets into you like a rusty fish hook.” - Byron Berline, renowned fiddler
Fit as a Fiddler
“This is my Bill Monroe wall,” Berline says, gesturing to a collection of priceless pictures featuring a “Who’s Who” showcase of famous bluegrass artists.
Following a rich career in Los Angeles, California, and Nashville, Tennessee, life has called him home to Guthrie, Oklahoma. Now, walking through Berline’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop just off the main drag of downtown is like stepping into a corner of fiddler heaven.
Out of many records and collaborations, Berline can’t choose a favorite. According to the artist, it would “be like choosing one of my kids.” However, to the right of the shop door hangs his Grammy nominations for “Fiddle and a Song.” The album featured Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, Earl Scruggs, Mason Williams and another famous Oklahoman, Vince Gill.
“I always knew he was going to be a big star,” Berline says of Gill, a Byron Berline Band member for three years.
Berline likes vintage fiddles as evidenced in the first floor of the shop. Most music stores will sell new instruments, likely made in China or Japan. At the Double Stop, fiddle fans can find pieces from all the way back to the 1600s, including a few special autographed pieces from his time in the film industry.
Being in California, Berline had the opportunity to record and do sound work for commercials and movies. Through this work, he developed a friendship with a well-known bodybuilder turned actor turned governor.
Arnold Schwarzenegger needed to learn how to look like he could play the fiddle for the 1974 comedy, “Stay Hungry,” co-starring Jeff Bridges and Sally Fields. Berline received a call from Schwarzenegger’s agent asking him how much he would charge for such a task to which Berline responded, “Nothing.”
Schwarzenegger came over to his house the next day and the two became fast friends.
After their first session, the actor said, “Byron, I’ve got to get you in this movie somehow!”
Berline came to visit the set, and they hired him right on the spot to go to Birmingham, Alabama, to pre-record the soundtrack and recruit other musicians. An autographed fiddle from the actor sits in the shop’s glass display case as a treasured memento from the experience.
Taking the stairs to the second floor reveals a lobby showcasing Berline’s Gibson collection, and just around the corner lies a music hall that is home to bi-monthly performances from The Byron Berline Band. The hall has played host to many other notable artists, including Mumford and Sons on their way out of town from the “Gentlemen of the Road” tour. Between sets, ticketholders are treated to dessert in the dining hall, just like family.
According to Berline, bluegrass music is unique because of the combination of the instruments and the vocals and how they blend and play off each other. Usually a bluegrass band will feature a mandolin, guitar, bass, sometimes a dobro and, of course, a fiddle. However, the fiddler claims one special instrument makes that mountain sound the best.
“Banjo is the most important,” Berline says. “When I think of bluegrass I think of banjo.”
Pickin’ and Grinnin’
Photo courtesy of Lucas Ross
Bluegrass music descended off the mountains and struck a chord in Oklahoma’s “land of milk and honey” with comedian and television personality Lucas Ross. The Minco, Oklahoma, native found inspiration in his hero Steve Martin, who often picks the banjo to bring life to his standup routine.
Using his rural roots, Ross goes by the moniker “Son of a Beekeeper” to pay homage to his parents’ role in the beloved Minco Honey Festival and their Ross Honey Plant, which was, at one time, the largest honey producing facility in the state.
“I thought, ‘There are a lot of people who can play piano or guitar,’” Ross jokes. “I’ve got an accordion and a banjo. I always say that if I had a set of bagpipes I’d be put on a watch list!”
Since Ross began to strum, he fell in love with the sound and the history behind the banjo. He has become the unofficial “Oklahoma Ambassador” to the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a world-class facility that is home to the largest collection in the world of banjos on public display.
Ross offers a class at the museum called “Pick a Tune with Lucas.” Five people can come to the museum for free and Ross will show them the basics. According to Ross, the banjo is “America’s instrument.”
“For me personally, I feel like the banjo has brought people together at different times in America’s history, and it continues to do so through our highs and lows,” Ross says.
Two high points of Ross’ career were getting the chance to meet his idol Steve Martin. The second time was orchestrated by the one and only Byron Berline.
Steve Martin opened for Berline and Linda Ronstadt’s show at The Troubadour in 1971. Berline says the Santa Monica, California, club was the place to go and get discovered. The first night the critics came to review the show, and the next day Berline says Martin was heavily criticized in the press.
“He came in looking worn and dejected and I said, ‘Hey, did you make people laugh? Then you’re a success!’” Berline says.
At a Steve Martin performance in Oklahoma back in 2015, Ross was seated behind Berline in the audience. Berline used his connections to work Ross backstage.
“When I was a kid, I always dreamed of meeting him and wrote him letters,” Ross says of his 20-year obsession with the performer. “It was really awesome and I still can’t believe it happened.”
From shows to local car commercials to “Discover Oklahoma,” Ross can likely be found with his honeycomb-decorated banjo in tow. Yet, as a humble comedic player, he remains surprised when people request him to get it out on stage.
“I want to shine a light on the banjo in a good way, both the instrument itself and those performers who are really, really good,” Ross says.
A Common Language
To find a good performer, Oklahomans needn’t look further than the backyards of many cities and towns in the state. Organizations like the Greater Oklahoma Bluegrass Music Society (GOBMS) help make the genre accessible for musicians and fans and continue the tradition of bluegrass music for generations to come.
Danny Watters, Oklahoma Electric Cooperative member and board director, also serves on the GOBMS board. His band, the Greystone Bluegrass Revival, is known for their close harmonies and powerful bluegrass Gospel music.
The GOBMS hosts its group often at its monthly concerts at the Oklahoma Country-Western Museum and Hall of Fame. Every second Saturday of the month, members invite the public to come enjoy a unique musical experience on their stage decorated with a quaint red barn.
“When you step on that stage, all the other distractions in life take a backseat,” Watters says. “Playing and listening to bluegrass music feels almost spiritual to me.”
Even more relaxing are bluegrass festivals, usually held in open areas for fans to bring their campers and their instruments for impromptu jam sessions. Watters says there are many festival-goers who never actually watch a show—they’re having too much fun jamming with each other in the crowd.
“It brings people together who may not have anything in common, whether it’s their line of work or even the language they speak,” Watters says.
For a true global experience, Oklahoma is also home to the only international bluegrass festival in the world. Set in motion by Berline, every October since 1996, Guthrie has hosted bluegrass bands from Japan, China, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, Finland and more. The Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival has been a booming success, and Berline attributes the continued growth to the heart and soul of Oklahomans.
“People in Oklahoma are such wonderful people and are passionate about things and friendly,” Berline says.
At any given festival, the players may change but the scene remains mostly the same. Smooth harmonies of jam sessions will float along the current of easy conversations across lawn chairs. As children run through patches of Black-eyed-Susans creating a made-up game with the bright tune of a fiddle in the background, it’s easy to imagine one of them might just be the next Byron Berline.
In addition to the artists and the campground experience, the 2017 Oklahoma’s International Bluegrass Festival will offer youth events and competitions as well as scholarships funded by golf tournaments and auctions. Join in on the jam at the 21st Annual Oklahoma’s International Bluegrass Festival on October 5, 6 & 7, 2017.