Feb. 23, 2019 is a date fiddle legend Byron Berline will always remember with sorrow. A fire erupted in historic downtown Guthrie, OK where Berline had run his historic Double Stop Fiddle Shop for decades, destroying his business and an adjoining store. Berline, who was on a golf vacation in Mexico when the tragedy occurred, heard the news by text that the center of his musical universe, where he housed his priceless collection of more than 400 historic and vintage violins, vanished like a hot coal through a snowbank. A few items were salvaged in the heavy safes he stored them in, like his Loar F-5. But his loss was beyond epic.
Nevertheless, Berline persisted, reopening the famous store which had been a center of bluegrass and acoustic music in the area since 1995 just across the street in Guthrie. “What do you want me to do,” he answered one reporter at the fire scene when asked about his future plans. “Give up golf or fiddle?”
Well, there’s no way the only musician to record and perform with both Bill Monroe and Mick Jagger was leaving music. And one project he evidently embarked on cathartically was this epic three-CD recording of 63 original tunes, backed by his regular bandmates on guitar, electric bass, drums, with a few special guests on banjo and other instruments.
Early In The Morning takes us across the amazing breadth of Byron’s roots and musical passions. Disc One covers old-time, Disc Two displays his considerable bluegrass chops, and Disc Three shows his love for Western Swing. Backed by an all-star cast including Jens Kruger, Ned Luberecki, Alan Munde, Tommy Emmanuel, Jay Dee Maness, and more, the project reveals the inner workings of Berline’s approach to musicianship across three differing styles.
The all-original tunes are mostly interesting. But at times the melodies feel like one-riff licks played over common chord changes. It raised the question, if Byron is presenting a full catalog of his fiddling passions, why he didn’t bring in some of the tunes he played and recorded with Bill Monroe like “Gold Rush” and other authentic tunes he’s associated with?
Small points aside, fiddle players will gain a bevy of licks and tunes by taking a close listen here. The man still has a wealth of great music ahead of him, and he’s not letting a little fire disaster stop him.