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RIP Big Al Byla, Piper Road Spring Band

Posted by John Duggleby on May 31, 2018 in Uncategorized |
I first saw Big Al Byla onstage at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in about 1974. I last saw him less than a couple of weeks ago at his “straw house” as Billy Kangaroo and I watched his beloved Lithuanian national basketball team which had miraculously made it to the semifinals of the European tournament.

These two events sort of bookend the breadth of a guy whose interests and talents matched his presence when he launched into “Jerusalem Ridge” onstage. The musical prowess of this three-time Wisconsin State Fiddle Champion is legendary. I learned a ton from Al and the rest of Piper Road Spring Band during a 20-year period when I sat in with them frequently. Perhaps the biggest impression was their enduring popularity everywhere from Madison to the Florida Keys.

But music was just a fraction of the juggernaut that was Big
Al. He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, able to converse on almost anything from novelists to bullhead breeding habits. And he had an insatiable appetite for new information. As I recently explained the origins of Hawaiian slack key guitar to him, I swear there was a tape recorder between his ears getting it all down.

As Billy and I left his place on May 18, Al was in good spirits even though Lithuania got trounced on the hardwood. I noted that “Wait till next year” ultimately happened even for the Cubs, and I was keeping my homemade “LIE-TU-VA!” (the Lithuanian chant) jersey for game watching in 2019.

Sadly that and other parties with Al will not come to pass. Still, I’m so grateful for the way he’s enriched my life. Much love to Becky and his longtime bandmates and friends. I know the Big Guy is watching over us, probably humming yet another encore of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

 

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