Byron Berline is grieving for the treasure trove of stringed instruments lost in the fire that destroyed his Double Stop Fiddle Shop & Music Hall in Guthrie on Feb. 23.
"Each instrument has its own soul, and that’s the hard part about it for him," said Thomas Trapp, lead guitarist in the Byron Berline Band. "He talks about each one of them as he would a person. Some of them were from the 18th century. They made it this long, and now they will never be heard again."
But some will live to be played another day, thanks to the luthiers from across the country who have offered to restore the heat- and water-damaged instruments that were stored in safes as part of Berline’s personal collection.
Berline’s treasured 1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin suffered only minor damage, Trapp said.
"It was in one of the safes upstairs, in a special case that saved it. He was able to pull it out and play it that day. It was still in tune. It’s a legendary instrument. When he pulled it out of the safe, a lot of the pain went away real quick."
His friends also helped ease the pain, Berline said a few days after the fire.
"I just want to thank everybody who has been so supportive," Berline said. "I have heard from people all over the world. They seem to grieve as much as we do. The memorabilia as well as the instruments—it’s all gone now."
Lucas Ross, an Oklahoma City television personality, was among those who reached out to offer support and help re-build Berline’s archive of memorabilia. Ross, a fellow banjo player, gave Berline a photo of himself and his wife, Bette, taken with the actor and banjo extraordinaire Steve Martin at WinStar Casino.
Berline said he expects others will be able to help him replace some of the photos and career memorabilia he kept in the store.
Guthrie musician Verla Raines is among the friends who have offered moral support and organized fundraisers and benefit concerts. One is scheduled for March 31 at the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City, and another is tentatively planned for later in the spring in Guthrie.
"Byron Berline has inspired, encouraged, taught and mentored so many young people just finding their way in the music world," Raines said. "He welcomes young and old to his Saturday jams, to his monthly Music Hall show, to the international bluegrass festival, which awards scholarships for youth to receive musical instruction. Byron’s welcoming smile and laid-back personality endears him to those who meet him and hear his stories of his 64-year music career."
Byron Berline: from ‘Bluegrass Boy’ to Oklahoma icon
After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, Berline launched his career in 1967 as a Bluegrass Boy with the legendary Bill Monroe. He served two years in the U.S. Army, then moved to Southern California and became a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers. He won the National Oldtime Fiddle Contest Championship three times and founded a band called Sundance, which Oklahoma native and country music star Vince Gill later joined as a mandolin player.
Gill was traveling in Australia and New Zealand the week of the fire, according to his mother, Jerene Gill, of Oklahoma City. She said he was back home a few weeks ago and they made a trip to Guthrie.
"They played a little music and we visited with Bette and Byron," Jerene Gill said. "He’s just a wonderful, kind person."
Byron and Bette moved to her hometown of Guthrie and opened the shop in 1995. Bette is a pianist who has played on some of Byron’s albums.
Among the musicians Berline has recorded with are the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Byrds, Earl Scruggs, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, The Eagles, and The Doobie Brothers.
Berline took his talent to Tulsa last October for an appearance at Gathering Place on the QuikTrip Great Lawn, along with bluegrass musicians Shelby Eicher, Tommy Crook, Cowboy Jim Garling, and Sam Bush. He has also played at Cain’s Ballroom with the Red Dirt Rangers.
That spirit of collaboration helped Berline launch the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in 1997, according to OIBF board member Doug Hawthorne of Stillwater.
"He had traveled around the world and gotten to know a lot of musicians … and they had treated him well, and he wanted them to know Oklahoma and to pay back some of their favors," Hawthorne said.
"The festival is a nonprofit corporation," Hawthorne said. "Nobody involved makes a dime with the exception of our coordinator. We put a lot of resources each year into our children’s tent. We run 1,000 to 2,000 school children through that tent every year on field trips. We award scholarships to young musicians for instruction on acoustic instruments."
Passing the fiddle: a new generation rises from the flames
Members of the Guthrie family band known as RussellClan were mentored by Berline and eventually invited to play at the bluegrass festival.
"Byron has inspired and encouraged the children in their music," RussellClan matriarch Maris Russell said. "He has given them instruments over the years as well as opportunities to play in his fiddle shows and festivals. I believe the children are better musicians because of Bryon, but they are also better people because of his kind, humble example."
"Byron is so encouraging and always has time for us," said RussellClan member Sadie Russell, 17. "You know that he cares about you as a person, no matter what level of music you can play."
Singer-songwriter Buffalo Rogers grew up in Guthrie and as a teenager started hanging around Double Stop after taking up the harmonica. "I bought my first fiddle there," he said.
Rogers said he is still not much of a fiddle player, but did go on to learn guitar, banjo, accordion, and mandolin. He said he attended the Saturday morning jam sessions with Berline and more experienced musicians and was allowed to join them "probably sooner than I should have."
"It’s a real tragedy and loss to the community," Rogers said. "Some of the things that were lost are absolutely priceless. It’s a real loss for anybody who loves old musical instruments."
Berline said he and his wife were on vacation in Mexico when the fire broke out. Firefighters told him it started on the back porch of the flower shop next door, a building Berline also owned, and was fueled by south winds as high as 50 mph.
Trapp said a family member was running the store and was able to grab a few things, including the mandolin and fiddle Berline uses on stage. He said other instruments used by band members along with the PA system were lost, but the band does not plan to miss a show.
Berline said the March 9 and March 23 concerts that would have been played in his upstairs Music Hall will be at the Guthrie Community Church. He is currently considering locations to re-open the shop.
Trapp said witnessing Berline’s resilience has been amazing. "Seeing him in the face of this disaster and still be able to pick up the pieces and go on—it’s not that he’s unaffected by it, but it’s not going to keep him from being able to smile and enjoy the rest of his time on Earth. He’s got to be the best man walking the planet. There’s nobody like him."
To donate to the post-fire relief effort, click here or send a check made out to Byron Berline to Interbank, 224 E. Oklahoma Ave., Guthrie, OK 73044.