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Byron Berline, Master of the Bluegrass Fiddle, Dies at 77

Byron Berline, Master of the Bluegrass Fiddle, Dies at 77

NYT Music

Byron Douglas Berline, the youngest of five children of Lue and Elizabeth (Jackson) Berline, was born on July 6, 1944, in Caldwell, Kan., near the Oklahoma border. His father worked a farm and played banjo and fiddle at barn dances and other events. His mother, a homemaker, played piano.

Young Byron started playing a three-quarter-sized fiddle when he was 5; he won his first public competition at 10, outplaying his father. Among his early influences was Eck Robertson, the first old-time fiddler to appear on record.

A gifted athlete, Mr. Berline earned a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he enrolled in 1963, only to fracture his hand that fall. The injury caused him to focus on music, although he maintained his athletic scholarship by joining the track team as a javelin thrower.

Mr. Berline attracted the attention of the Dillards while playing in a campus folk group at Oklahoma. They invited him to play on “Pickin’ and Fiddlin’.” After graduating from college in 1967 and completing his military service in 1969, Mr. Berline moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Bette (Ringrose) Berline, at the urging of Doug Dillard, who recruited him to record with Dillard & Clark.

After three years of session work in California, along with time in the Flying Burrito Brothers, Mr. Berline formed his own group, Country Gazette, and signed with United Artists Records. The band’s bluegrass blend proved influential, and it recorded for almost two decades, but Country Gazette never achieved mainstream success.

Another project, Byron Berline & Sundance, likewise secured a deal with MCA Records. But the group’s three founding members, guitarist Dan Crary, banjo player John Hickman and Mr. Berline — later billing themselves as Berline, Crary & Hickman — fared best in a traditional bluegrass market, releasing records on independent labels like Rounder and Sugar Hill into the 1990s.

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