The sounds of bluegrass drift in the background as Oklahoma fiddle legend Byron Berline reflects on a career that has endured uncertainty.
“I think you’re successful when you can make a living doing what you love to do,” says Berline, who knew early on that fiddle-playing as an avocation was an “iffy” choice. “You never know when the next paycheck is going to come. You hope you get a call and it works out.”
And it did for Berline … in a big way.
If you visit Berline in his Double Stop Fiddle Shop in downtown Guthrie, you might assume he’s a grandpa with a hobby. But this 73-year-old has an impressive list of musical credits to his name. He’s recorded with Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Rod Stewart, the Birds, the Rolling Stones and many other names any music enthusiast would recognize.
Berline, while living and working in Los Angeles for 26 years, also played music for and appeared in several movies and TV episodes.
“If you’re out there playing in public, then people see you and then they recommend you for this and that and the other, and that’s how that works,” says Berline, understating his talent.
One gig he remembers vividly was Stay Hungry, starring Sally Field and Jeff Bridges. The film has one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early roles. Berline provided the actual fiddle music, but he had to teach the man who would become The Terminator how to look like he was playing.
Berline’s roots are in Grant County, where he was the youngest of five children living on a farm. His father played the fiddle and, while his siblings were all musical, he learned violin from his dad.
“I don’t remember ever not playing the fiddle, to be honest. I just grew up doing it,” he says.
Berline’s musical career began while he studied physical education at the University of Oklahoma. He recorded his first album with The Dillards, a bluegrass band, in summer 1965. That same year, he was invited to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island and met Bill Monroe, one of the early pioneers of bluegrass music. Monroe asked him to come aboard then, but Berline waited until he finished school before joining the band in 1967, when his career took off.
After more than two decades in California, Berline and his wife, Bette, moved to Guthrie, her hometown.
“One day I said, ‘This is enough; we’ve been out here long enough,’” Berline says. “‘Let’s move back to Guthrie, and I’ll find a place to put the instruments I’d been collecting.’”
Berline spends his time enjoying family, playing golf and having all his instruments in his shop, but he hasn’t left fiddle playing behind. He plays twice a month with the Byron Berline Band above the fiddle shop and travels to play and teach periodically.
The project he’s most proud of is the annual International Bluegrass Festival the first weekend in October in Guthrie; it brings in musical groups from all over the world.
In addition to his extensive recording, film and television career, Berline has traveled the world and played in all 50 states. He says he has done it all for the love of fiddle-playing.
“I feel like I’ve been on vacation for 50 years – that’s the way I feel,” he says.