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The Mandolin Side of Byron Berline

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
March 18, 2014 - 2:00 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Byron Berline is such a wonderful fiddle player, among the best ever, his mandolin playing gets scant mention. But when Berline bends into a mandolin tune onstage, he applies a flatpick the same touch, taste and musical joy found in his fiddle bowing. Plus from Monroe to Moore, the Oklahoma farm boy and onetime college javelin throwing champion has stood alongside many of the notables and greats in the mandolin world.

Berline's fiddling is beloved. But many of us through the years perked up to extra attention when he slung a mandolin strap over his right shoulder and tore into a tune. His career was born in a musical family upbringing on the rolling prairie farm country along the Oklahoma-Kansas border

"Dad had a tater bug at home ," Berline said, speaking of Lue Berline, also an excellent musician. "He said, 'you play the notes just like a fiddle,' and I lit up at that. I was probably seven or eight years old."

Fiddle was their passion, including making waves and winning championships in the national and regional contests in the 1960s. Both father and son were notables. But Byron Berline kept tinkering with the mandolin, too.

"I played mandolin when I was in college, but not too much," he said. "The first mandolin I ever bought for myself was an early-teens F2. I paid $50 for it, got it from a guy up in Nebraska about 1965. I played it for a long time and kept it for a long time."

Byron Berline at Wyatt Violin Shop's Fiddle and Mandolin Workshop, Independence, Mo., February 23, 2014. Byron Berline at Wyatt Violin Shop's Fiddle and Mandolin Workshop, Independence, Mo., February 23, 2014.

In November, 1963, Berline was a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The Dillards, destined for bluegrass greatness, were young unknowns making their way from Missouri to California. Berline met them at a folk music gig on campus, a jam ensued, which led to his appearance later on their instrumental album and national fame. Dean Webb played mandolin in that ground-breaking band, the first of many great mandolin players Berline would perform with, both absorbing and imparting influences.

The Dillards connection led to Ralph Rinsler, musicologist, musician and manager for The Master, Bill Monroe. Rinsler put Lue and Byron Berline on the bill at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Jam sessions at that festival put Berline's fiddling on Monroe's radar. He was invited to join the band for a set at the festival.

Berline played both offense and defensive end on the OU football team for year before focusing on javelin, shot put and discus on the track team. "I liked defense best, I liked tackling people." He is tall and physically stout like Monroe. He also does a first-rate mimic of his voice and sayings.

"Monroe said, 'I want you to play in my band,' but I told him I had to finish college."

They kept in touch. When Berline had finished college, he let Monroe know. One day the phone rang, "I can really use you" said the Father of Bluegrass.

His first gig with Monroe was playing a set at the Grand Ole Opry.

Byron Berline as Bluegrass Boy

Byron Berline as part of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. L-R: Byron Berline, Bill Monroe, James Monroe, Lamar Greir at the Barn at Bean Blossom Jamboree Park, Bean Blossom, Indiana, 1967. Photo credit: Jim Peva. Photo appears on Jim Moss' web site.

Byron Berline as Bluegrass Boy

"I was nervous as could be," Berline said. Then Monroe handed me his F5 and said 'Baarn (Monroe always pronounced his name this way) tune this up for me, I've got to go get my shoes shined.' "

Berline found himself struggling to get the world's most famous F5 tuned up with despite ancient strings and an impossibly high action.

"Bill never changed a string unless he broke one," Berline said. "When he got back, I said, Bill, isn't this action kind of high."

"Yes sir Baarn, it takes a real man to play that mandolin."

Berline played seven months with Monroe in 1967 before being drafted into the Army. In one three-hour recording session, they recorded "Virginia Darling," "Sally Goodin" and most notable The Gold Rush.

"I didn't think Gold Rush would amount to much at the time," he said. "It wasn't speedy or flashy."

Byron Berline Workshop

Byron Berline workshop at Fairmount United Methodist Church in Independence, Mo., Feb. 23, accompanied by Kansas City bluegrass legend Jim McGreevy.

Byron Berline with Jim McGreevy on banjo
Photo credit: Bill Graham

This February, Berline appeared at a fiddle and mandolin workshop sponsored by Wyatt Violin Shop in Independence, Mo. In the basement of a small country church he played music, demonstrated techniques and told stories. Invariably the tales drifted back to Monroe. In the workshop and in an interview, there is reverence underlying the humor.

"Bill was an awesome player," Berline said. "He'll go down as one of the most important musical artists of all time."

Bill Monroe with Byron Berline

Byron's former band California playing Gold Rush on stage with Bill Monroe as their guest.

After a stint in the Army and marriage to Bette Berline, Byron was back on the West Coast and immersed in the Los Angeles music scene. In 1969, he was helping Doug Dillard and Gene Clark (of the Byrds) record a Dillard and Clark Expedition album. He also helped with the Dillards landmark newgrass album Copperfields.

But Berline also began to perform more on the mandolin in studio sesson work and onstage.

"I never really messed with the mandolin much until I was out in California and playing with Doug Dillard. I just started playing more mandolin then."

For years, Berline's main mandolin was an F2 that Randy Wood converted to an F5.

"I played that mandolin forever, onstage and recording with it and so forth. I played it into the 1990s when I sold it to a guy in Switzerland."

But in 1980, Berline had also acquired a Gibson F5 signed by Lloyd Loar on April 25, 1923.

"I love that mandolin," he said. "It's one of the best. I do most of my recording with it."

Berline like his father is a fiddle trader. But he's also accumulated a number of different mandolins of various styles and makes. These days, he runs a music shop in Guthrie, Okla., Bryon's Double Stop Fiddle Shop. At the workshop, he played a nice F5 made by Eduard Kristufek of the Czech Republic.

Byron Berline's Eduard Kristufek Mandolin

Byron Berline with Eduard Kristufek mandolin
Photo credit: Bill Graham

In bands through the years and in his current Byron Berline Band, he perhaps will start a tune like Bluegrass Breakdown on the mandolin and then switch mid-tune to fiddle, or vice versa. Swing, folk rock or bluegrass, he'll often insert the mandolin, especially onstage. He included a song he wrote called Mando Mania on his Jumping the Strings album, and he recently penned Triggs Tune on a mandolin made by Jim Triggs. His right hand pick grip is an unusual thumb, first finger and middle finger combination.

"I've always played mandolin according to different band situations and what I thought would sound best in the songs," Berline said. "Sometimes the mandolin just sounds best in a song."

Young musicians have long followed his musical style. He met and influenced mandolinist John Moore when the latter was a young teenager, and Moore later played with him in the band California. Moore in turn influenced a young Chris Thile.

"People like Mark O'Conner and Chris Thile, when they were kids, you show them once and they got it," Berline said. "It's mind boggling."

Berline has worked on movies, known film stars, played with musical greats from the Rolling Stones onward, plus circulating in the bluegrass world. Yet he's still humble and helpful.

Byron Berline: A Fiddler's Diary. By Byron Berline and  Jane Frost. Byron Berline: A Fiddler's Diary. By Byron Berline and Jane Frost.

At the workshop, Bette Berline pulled him aside and pointed out a young man sitting alone who had visited the CD table and mentioned he was trying to learn both mandolin and fiddle. She suggested he might need some encouragement. Byron quietly went and sat down by him and struck up a conversation.

"I remember how it was when I was young," he said later. "It means a lot to a kid to have a grownup or a great player give you encouragement."

Berline places Sam Bush atop his list of favorite current players, "but they're all great, they all have something unique."

You can catch Berline playing music these days in the performance hall above the Double Stop shop in Guthrie, usually a concert every two weeks. And yes you can expect his fiddle playing to be most prominent in the show. But like through the years, he's apt to grab something with eight strings, too.

"I really enjoy the mandolin," he said.

For a fascinating peek into bluegrass an Americana music history, check out his recently published autobiography, Byron Berline, A Fiddler's Diary, with co-author Jane Frost.

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Reader Comments

Earl Gamage
March 18, 2014 02:24 PM
Byron's shop is a great place to visit. There are chairs for jamming and I got to jam with Byron once. He's very nice and a lot of fun.

Lot's of good instruments for sale too.
March 18, 2014 02:26 PM
Interesting piece -- but it would be even MORE interesting to many of us on the Mandolin Cafe if there were some audio or video samples of Byron Berline's mandolin playing to accompany your words (and not his fiddle playing, which we know and love)!
March 18, 2014 04:07 PM
The first two Country Gazette albums, Traitor in our Midst and Don't Give Up Your Day Job, feature Berline playing great fiddle, of course, and terrific mandolin on some songs. Listen to his break on Snowball on the Don't Give Up Your Day Job album. It's terrific. And the Gazette's Live in Holland album features his fiddle and mandolin playing too. Great stuff.
March 18, 2014 05:31 PM
Byron gave me my first mandolin lesson when I was in college at Oklahoma State. A nicer guy you will not meet. I've gotten to jam a few times with him. His Loar is one of the exceptional ones.
March 18, 2014 05:54 PM
Fast forward to about Minute 3 in this one:


About minute 2 in this one:

March 19, 2014 12:33 AM
One of my heroes. I attended a four-hour workshop he led a couple years ago at Wintergrass. A great player and real nice guy.
Don Julin
March 19, 2014 11:09 AM
I was at Folk Alliance International in Kansas City a few weeks back showcasing the duo "Billy Strings & Don Julin". One of the highlights of the week was when I got to play a few tunes with Mr. Berline. He is a true master and a very nice fellow.
March 20, 2014 10:13 AM
Another really great Bill Graham article. Bill is a treasure.
Jim Taylor
March 20, 2014 08:10 PM
Great article! I too have enjoyed being around Byron, his shop is really a great place and his shows are super too!
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