Byron Berline’s Lesson Plan
PORT TOWNSEND, WA— Fiddle Tunes is such a blast it makes you wish you played the fiddle. It lasts a whole week, and you get to hang out with a few hundred other fiddlers who will just as soon jam with you as say hello. It would be hard to imagine that a guitar camp would be as inclusive.
This year’s faculty has several “tradition bearers,” older players who are invited to interact with attendees with the hope of keeping the tradition alive. Eight instructors are over 90, and one of them flew in a plane for the first time to attend. So Byron Berline, who turns 68 at the festival, is a comparative whippersnapper.
Berline is passing on his own bluegrass gospel, teaching several classes but also stopping to play with the younger students. Some are intimidated by him and shy away while others jump right in. “You can learn something from anyone if you pay attention,” he said. “Even if someone isn’t as technically good as you are they will always have something you can borrow.” And bluegrass is a universal language. “This is the same music everywhere, I’ve been overseas and played bluegrass for hours with people who didn’t speak a word of English.”
Berline has a storied history, playing sessions with performers as diverse as Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan and Tammy Wynette.
Outside of the bluegrass world he is best-known for playing on “Country Honk,” The Rolling Stones’ countrified reworking of “Honky Tonk Women” from Let it Bleed. Berline said he was introduced to The Rolling Stones by Gram Parsons, who was pressuring the band to record more country-flavored tunes.
“I get this call at midnight from Keith Richards and their tour manager, Phil Kaufman, and it wasn’t very clear,” Berline said. “They said something about ‘Rolling Stones’ and I thought they were talking about the magazine and they said ‘no, the group’ and I said ‘yeah, I know you’re stoned.’ It took a while for me to understand, but I finally got that they wanted me to come to LA and play.
“I said that I’d be out there in a few weeks but they said that wasn’t good enough, that they needed me tomorrow. So they flew me out to LA the next day and sat me in a studio and played the recorded track for me to overdub my solo, but they didn’t seem to like it, so they put me outside on the street.
“I recorded the solo outside, which is why you can hear the horn at the beginning of the song.”
One of Berline’s fondest memories was recording with Bill Monroe, which was done “seated in a semicircle like in the old days.”
His missed opportunities include recording with Dolly Parton, whom he calls “one of the best all-around writers and a natural singer.”
Parton is still recording, but there’s one opportunity that won’t present itself again.
“In July of 1977, I was talking to James Burton, who played guitar in Elvis Presley’s band, and asked him if Elvis would ever want to do any more country sessions,” Berline said.
“He said they’d been talking about that, and maybe he could get me in to play, but Elvis died a month later.”
I tell Berline that I had seen him perform with the Flying Burrito Brothers in DC years ago, when the band brought an unknown Emmylou Harris onstage to play a few songs. He remembered the show, and provided the back story.
“The next night we were playing at the University of Virginia and Gram Parsons comes walking in,” Berline said. “He looked great. He said he was looking for a female singer for some duets and asked if we knew anybody. We told him about Emmylou, saying that she had sung with us the night before and she was great. Chris Hillman gave him Emmylou’s number and the rest is history.”
These and other stories will be a part of Berline’s autobiography, which is now in progress.
While bluegrass is produced organically Berline thinks the digital world has helped to spread the word. A fiddler who posts a YouTube video can teach people around the world, who can learn the licks visually. “Back in the old days the only way you could learn things was to listen to records or the radio unless you were able to see someone live,” he said. “Now, anyone can learn.”
Watching Berline is a trip. He rolls his eyes and splashes on a big wide grin. He’s way older than when I saw him with the Burritos, but I remember the gleeful expressions.
“Sometimes I think about what I’m going to play next and other times I go somewhere else,” he said. “It’s like driving a car, where you are drifting off and then snap back and say ‘maybe I better concentrate now.”
Above: Berline, right, plays an impromptu version of “Country Honk” with New Orleans fiddler Aaron Gunn. Photo by Charlie Bermant.