His updated version of an old-timey approach enhanced recordings by everyone from Bill Monroe to the Rolling Stones.
By Bill Friskics-Warren
July 12, 2021
Byron Berline, the acclaimed bluegrass fiddle player who expanded the vocabulary of his instrument while also establishing it as an integral voice in country-rock on recordings by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and others, died on Saturday in Oklahoma City. He was 77.
His death, in a rehabilitation hospital after a series of strokes, was confirmed by his nephew Barry Patton.
Mr. Berline first distinguished himself as a recording artist when he was 21 on “Pickin’ and Fiddlin’,” an album of old-time fiddle tunes set to contemporary bluegrass arrangements by the innovative acoustic quartet the Dillards. The album features Mr. Berline’s heavily syncopated playing, along with long bow strokes that incorporate more than one note at the same time.
Later in the decade, Mr. Berline’s lyrical phrasing was heard on pioneering recordings by country-rock luminaries like the Flying Burrito Brothers and the duo Dillard & Clark, featuring the Dillards banjoist Doug Dillard and the singer-songwriter Gene Clark, late of the Byrds. He also recorded with Elton John, Rod Stewart and Lucinda Williams, among many others.
Weaving elements of pop, jazz, blues and rock into an old-timey approach to his instrument, Mr. Berline contributed instrumental selections to Bob Dylan’s soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 anti-western, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” He also overdubbed Nova Scotia-style fiddle on the Band’s 1976 single “Acadian Driftwood” and played on the albums “GP” (1973) and “Grievous Angel” (1974) by Gram Parsons, the country-rock progenitor and founding member of the Burrito Brothers.
Mr. Parsons recommended Mr. Berline for what would become undoubtedly his most famous session appearance: the freewheeling fiddle part he added to “Country Honk,” the Rolling Stones’ down-home take on their 1969 pop smash “Honky Tonk Women.” Recorded in Los Angeles, the song was included on “Let It Bleed,” the group’s landmark album released that December.
“I went in and listened to the track and started playing to it,” Mr. Berline said of his experience with the Stones in a 1991 interview with The Los Angeles Times.
When he was summoned to the control booth, he recalled, he feared the band was unhappy with his work. Instead, they invited him to recreate his performance on the sidewalk along Sunset Boulevard, where the Elektra studio, where they were recording the track, was located. Hence the car horns and other ambient street sounds captured on the session.
“There was a bulldozer out there moving dirt,” Mr. Berline said. “Mick Jagger went out himself and stopped the guy.”