||Musician recalls gift of friends
By Gene Triplett
Byron Berline remembers one night at the Troubador when a young unknown musician named Gene Clark bummed 35 cents from him for a pack of smokes.
Cigarettes were still that cheap in 1964, and Berline, an Oklahoma-based fiddle player, was still as unknown as his new acquaintance, as the two sat there in the balcony of the famed Los Angeles night spot watching the renowned bluegass group, the Dillards.
Berline's future was looking good -- he was in town to record with the Dillards. But Clark had prospects, too.
"We were sitting there, and he was telling me, 'You know, this time next year, I should be doin' pretty well,'" Berline recalls. "I said, 'Is that right?' He says, 'Yeah, I'm gettin' in a new band.' And he told me the name was going to be the Byrds. And he said, 'I think we can make a lot of money.' And I said, 'That's good. You'll have to pay me back that 35 cents.'"
Sure enough, Berline was back in Norman a year later, where he was an education student at the University of Oklahoma, when he turned on the radio one night and first heard the chiming 12-string folk-rock guitars of the Byrds, covering Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."
It was not only one of the biggest hits of 1965 but a turning point in pop music, when rock, folk and country began a process of stylistic mixing and mingling that created new sonic hybrids and genres.
"Well, he was right," Berline laughs. "He did real well. But I never did collect from him."
Still, that unpaid 35-cent debt hasn't stopped Guthrie's baron of bluegrass from recording a tribute album to Clark and to another world-changing, one- time Byrds member: Gram Parsons.
The "Clark/Parsons Tribute Album" features Byron Berline Band members Jim Fish (guitars, vocals), John Hickman (banjo), Richard Sharp (bass, vocals), Steve Short (drums), Berline (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), plus an all-star guest lineup.
Berline, who had cut his teeth on traditional bluegrass and served an appropriate apprenticeship in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, was an innovator in his own field, using his bow to stir up a progressive new form called "newgrass," which combined elements of jazz, pop, blues and traditional country.
It wasn't surprising that when folk 'n' roller guys like Clark and Parsons started reinventing themselves as cosmic country boys with city sensibilities, they'd call on a genuine country gentlemen such as Berline to lend authenticity to their sound.
The championship fiddler became one of the busiest rock 'n' roll session men in the business in the late '60s and early '70s, starting with a drunken phone call one midnight in 1969 from none other than Keith Richards.
Berline does a pretty good impression of the Rolling Stones guitarist in his cups.
"'Uh, hey, y'know, we want you to come out and record with us.' I said, 'Who are you?' He said, 'We're with the Stones.' I said, 'Yeah, I know you're stoned, but who are you with?"
Berline ended up recording the fiddle solo for "Country Honk," the countrified version of "Honky Tonk Woman" included on the Stones' classic album "Let It Bleed." The traffic sounds in the background of that song are real, because someone -- Berline doesn't remember if it was Mick, Keith or producer Glynn Johns -- decided to stick him out on the sidewalk in front of Elektra studios.
Everyone from members of the Doors to Leon Russell was said to be in the street corner audience that witnessed that session, and Richards has sworn to Berline that there exists a photo of the fiddler, standing on the curb, sawing away on his instrument, unaware of a marijuana plant growing through a crack in the pavement between his feet.
It was the Okie fiddler's auspicious introduction to the L.A. rock scene of the late '60s, although he'd already joined his friends Doug Dillard and Gene Clark in time to record the second Dillard and Clark Expedition album, "Through the Morning Through the Night."
Berline says an Army hitch had made him "a day late and a dollar short" in being part of the two seminal country-rock albums of 1968-69 -- the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and the Flying Burrito Brothers' "The Gilded Palace of Sin." Parsons, a wild kid genius from Winter Haven, Fla., had masterminded both of those groundbreaking works. He was the one who had recommended Berline's services to the Stones, although the two barely knew each other at the time.
Berline moved his family from Oklahoma to Los Angeles shortly after the "Let It Bleed" session and lent his talents to the Burritos' sophomore effort, "Burrito Deluxe," and the two solo albums Parsons managed to record -- "G.P." and "Grievous Angel," before the young genius' untimely demise from a drug overdose in 1973.
"When I first met him, I thought he was a spoiled city kid or somethin'," Berline now recalls. "That was my first impression I got of him. But the more I got to know him, the more that I knew that he really heart-felt this music, especially country music."
The less flamboyant, more introspective Clark kept up a sporadic but always inventive solo career up until his death in 1991, brought on by a long life of alcohol and drug abuse. Berline had been much closer to this ex-Byrd, who he described as "never really happy."
"It always seemed like he had a little cloud over his head," Berline says. "I don't know what his problem was. Sometimes he could be (happy), but overall he was an unhappy guy."
Berline doesn't presume to analyze how emotional demons and destructive drugs may have informed the music of Clark and Parsons. He only respects their talents.
Now back in Oklahoma, proprietor of the Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie and prime mover behind the annual Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival that draws thousands of musicians and fans to Oklahoma, Berline says he was prompted to do a tribute album to Clark and Parsons by his friendship with them and the devotion of his guitarist, Jim Fish, to their legacy.
"If it wasn't for Jim, we couldn't have done it," Berline says. "He's so familiar with all these songs, and he knew them, he's studied them all. I played with them all, but he's really studied it more, got into the music even more than I have, to be honest."
Songs such as Clark's "Full Circle," "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," "Train Leaves Here this Morning" and "With Care from Someone" and Parsons' "Wheels," "Hickory Wind," "In My Hour of Darkness," and "One Hundred Years from Now" are done in the warm, banjo- rambling, mainly acoustic way of traditional bluegrass and country, while preserving the youthful vitality of the artists who composed them.
They are enhanced by the gifts of Vince Gill, steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness and former Byrds/Burrito man Chris Hillman, among others, and the CD can be ordered online from www.doublestop.com.
May I recommend "The Clark/Parsons Tribute Album" by the Byron Berline Band with all my country-rocking heart.