Vince Gill figures he made at least a million memories with Byron Berline over their five-decade friendship.
So, that’s what the Country Music Hall of Famer named the new song he wrote to honor the passing of one of his mentors.
“‘You took a chance on a kid out of nowhere’ is the first line of the song. It’s pretty sweet,” Gill told The Oklahoman. “‘We made a million memories from Telluride to Old Mexico.’ When you’re just telling the truth, it’s pretty easy to have it spill out and wind up in a song.”
An Oklahoma music icon, Berline died July 10 from complications of a stroke he suffered in May. Berline, who marked his 77th birthday on July 6, was a legendary fiddler whose storied career ranged from recording with The Rolling Stones, Bill Monroe and many more to working on TV shows and movies like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Basic Instinct” to helping Gill get his start as a teenage singer and musician.
Gill will perform at Berline’s memorial service at 10 a.m. July 20 at Guthrie’s First United Presbyterian Church. The country music superstar said he probably will play his new song “A Million Memories” as a tribute to the man who gave him the most important job he was ever offered.
“He was such a force, even before I got to play with him. He kind of was the gold standard of what bluegrass fiddling was supposed to be like,” said Gill, who performed the new song dedicated to Berline Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, where he also played his ode “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
“It was so powerful to a young kid who’s trying to figure it out and get going when somebody that possesses that much talent thinks enough of you as a kid to say, ‘Hey, come out here and do this with us.'”
Gill and Berline first met at a bluegrass festival in Kentucky back in 1976, the year after Gill graduated from Oklahoma City’s Northwest Classen High School.
“I played all those festivals around him when he was playing with the (band) Country Gazette. … They were always at the same festivals we played, and they were the kinds of guys that you never missed,” recalled Gill. “Some of my favorite lessons were watching them play.”
Once Berline heard the teenaged Gill perform and found out he was from Oklahoma, too, he never forgot him, either.
“I remembered his name, of course, and remembered his talent, his singing and his musical abilities,” Berline told The Oklahoman in 2012. “Our lead singer of the band I had at the time bailed out shortly after that. I kept thinking about Vince, but I didn’t really have any more information on him other than I knew he was from Oklahoma City.”
When he and his wife, Bette, made a return trip to Oklahoma a few months later, Berline called every Gill in the Oklahoma City phone book until he finally reached the future superstar’s father, Stan. The three-time National Fiddle Champion invited Gill out to California to audition for his band, Byron Berline & Sundance.
“He sang about two songs, and I said, ‘That’s enough for me. He’s got the job as far as I’m concerned.’ We’d been trying out a lot of different singers and players, but he fit the bill really well,” recalled Berline, who grew up in Grant County on the Oklahoma-Kansas border. “He played with us for almost three years … and it was an opportunity for him to really kind of set his style.”
For Gill, it turned out to be much more than that. He had just moved back to Louisville, Kentucky, after a short stint as Ricky Skaggs’ bandmate.
“They were a new band, they didn’t have a lot of jobs, and I got let go. It was the only job I was ever let go of, and me and Ricky laugh about it to this day,” Gill said with a chuckle. “In hindsight, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. … My dad called, and Byron had tracked my dad down.”
West Coast bound
At just 19 years old, Gill headed to Los Angeles to audition for Berline.
“It was the biggest shock of my life to get out there in that world of concrete and be on a freeway. … I had driven about 30, 40 minutes of concrete and exits in what I thought was L.A., and I stopped and I called Byron. I said, ‘Hey, man, I think I think I got screwed up and I’m somewhere near San Diego or something because I’ve driven for like 40 miles.’ He started laughing and he says, ‘You’ve gotta come another 50 miles before you cut north,” Gill recalled with a chuckle.
“Byron and Bette took me in, let me stay at their house for a little while, Bette would cook bacon and eggs. They just could not have been kinder.”
In addition to Berline and his Sundance bandmates, Gill said moving to the West Coast gave him the chance to meet and befriend great musicians like Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark.
“As I think back on it now, 45 years later, or whatever it’s been, that was the most important job I ever got. … I don’t think my life would look anything like it does now had I not gone out there and played with Byron,” Gill said.
“Just being welcomed when you’re the pup, it’s astounding how it impacts your entire life — because it lasts your entire life.”
Although he only played with Berline from 1977 until about 1980, Gill said their friendship remained as steadfast as the fiddler’s encouragement.
“The fact that I took off to play with Pure Prairie League and then went and played with Rodney and we got a record deal, he cheered me on the whole way,” Gill said.
Berline and his wife relocated in the 1990s to her hometown of Guthrie, where he founded and organized the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival and opened the Double Stop Fiddle Shop and Music Hall. Gill played the inaugural festival in 1997 and return engagements in 2002 and 2012.
In 1999, Gill and Berline were both selected for the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. They decided to introduce each other for induction because, Gill said, “it was only fair.” The photos of them “smirking and grinning” together make him smile.
“We are so saddened by the passing of Byron Berline. It’s such a loss for Oklahoma and for Oklahoma music,” said Andrea Chancellor, Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame Board Member. “His talent as a fiddler was unmatched, and you always had a great time listening and watching his performances.”
When Berline’s fiddle shop burned down in a 2019 fire, Gill, Larry Gatlin and the Turnpike Troubadours played a benefit at Guthrie’s historic Scottish Rite Masonic Temple to help raise money so he could reopen in a new location later that year.
With the COVID-19 outbreak last year, Gill said that fundraising show was the last time he saw his old friend in person.
But the memories, music and laughter remain.
“One of the funniest things ever — and I probably shouldn’t tell this — but we were playing a little joint, a little bar, somewhere in Illinois, I think. He decided to get a hot dog, and he took the first big bite out of that hot dog and we all heard this loud snap. He grinned, and he had broken his front tooth. You couldn’t have scripted a more hayseed-looking dude with him missing a tooth. It killed us all, and we had to get his tooth fixed and I don’t remember what all — just from him eating a hot dog,” Gill said, laughing.
“God, we had so much fun.”
A memorial service for iconic fiddler Byron Berline is slated for 10 a.m. July 20 at the First United Presbyterian Church, 102 E Noble Ave. in Guthrie. Seating will be limited.
A live-stream will be set up in the fellowship hall adjacent to the church’s main building to provide additional seating. The service also will be streamed at www.facebook.com/FUPGuthrie.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival Scholarship Fund. The 24th annual festival is planned for Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at Guthrie’s Cottonwood Creek festival grounds, and Berline will be memorialized during the event. For more information, go to https://www.oibf.com.