I was a kid and I didn’t have much money so I could only buy one album (vinyl in those days). I’m looking through the bluegrass bin at the Sam Something (Ash? Goody?) music store in the old South Hills mall. In one hand I have the Kenny Baker & Joe Greene record called High Country. I know these guys. In the other hand, Pickin’ and Fiddlin‘ by the Dillards with Byron Berline. I’d heard of the Dillards (they were partly responsible for importing bluegrass to hippydom) but who was this butch-cut blonde linebacker holding the fiddle, sitting and smiling in the middle of these longhairs? I had to find out. Maybe it’s hard to describe the impact of hearing Byron Berline play the fiddle when you’re only about a year into trying to scratch out a few notes yourself and wondering what these squeaks have to do with music. Except now I’ve been playing for a long time and listening to Byron’s today still knocks me down the same way.
That Pickin’ and Fiddlin’ recording was unique in its day and still is. Texas-style old time fiddle tunes played to bluegrass band accompaniment. On his latest recording, Runaway, Byron continues to mix and match genres from across America. His career over the years has been an itinerary of musical styles as he’s moved from Texas and National fiddle champ, to bluegrass, western swing, and country rock. From Bill Monroe to the Flying Burrito Brothers, to Emmylou Harris, to first call studio fiddler and, of course, to his own bands, Sundance and Berline, Crary and Hickman. The difference on Runaway is that he’s taken all his career phases and styles compressed them into a single recording – one that is impressive and refreshing.
First I should mention that Runaway is a band recording with Greg Burgess playing fiddle and guitar, Jim Fish on guitar, Byron’s old pal John Hickman on banjo, Richard Sharp on bass and Steve Short playing drums. Tim McDonald (piano) and Barry Patton (bones) round out the band.
Here are some highlights…
The CD opens with a Berline/Burgess original “Up and Down the River,” an instrumental featuring two fiddles on lead. The tune reminds me a lot of Berline’s early solo album Outrageous which featured a number of his instrumental compositions.
Somehow the band’s arrangement of the old Delaney & Bonnie song “Never Ending Love” reserves the original’s vocal feel at only a slightly faster tempo. A fun ride well executed.
If you’d never heard Ricky Nelson perform “Hello Mary Lou” you’d think it was a bluegrass standard. Byron does a really nice job of sounding like Bobby Hicks on this one.
Next up is the Byron’s take on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” This cut is a real genre buster, borrowing from blues, bluegrass and rock & roll. I love the fiddle leads and fills on this tune.
“Oklahoma Hills” is a great western standard from Jack Guthrie that is loads of fun. Twin fiddling on the head and great banjo and flattop breaks and I didn’t miss the steel guitar.
“Cherokee” is another one of Byron’s original fiddle instrumentals. Really well done harmony fiddling here.
The Rolling Stones and Beatles songs, “Wild Horses” and “Run For Your Life” don’t seem to work very well as uptempo bluegrass covers. On the other hand the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” had me smiling, with John Hickman’s five-string leading the way. The band’s version of the Yardbird’s hit “Heart Full of Soul” also receives a very effective treatment. The guitar and mandolin breaks are standouts.
The twin fiddles on “Yearning” is reminiscent of the Bob Wills classic arrangement. Throw in fine swingy breaks on banjo and guitar by Hickman and Jim Fish and this cut really shines.
The country gospel standard “Farther Along” gets the Sunday morning treatment: a loping waltz tempo, sweet vocal harmony on the chorus, and instrumental breaks traded around with Byron’s fiddle playing some beautiful fills.
The CD ends with a last Byron Berline original, the up tempo burner Runaway. Go Byron!!