Don Wesley Reno Biography

Don Wesley Reno Biography

Don Wesley Reno
Don Wesley Reno

Born in Buffalo, South Carolina, Don Reno grew up on a farm in Haywood County, North Carolina. He began playing the banjo at the age of five. His father gave him a guitar four years later; and in 1939 12-year-old Reno joined the Morris Brothers in performing at a local radio station.[2] He left one year later to join Arthur Smith, with whom he would years later record "Feudin' Banjos". In 1943 he received an offer from Bill Monroe to become a member of the Bluegrass Boys, but chose instead to enlist in the United States Army. Trained as a horse soldier at Fort Riley, Kansas, he was sent to the Pacific Theater to fight on foot. He eventually served in Merrill's Marauders and was wounded in action.[3]

Influenced by old-time banjo player Snuffy Jenkins and others, Reno developed his own three finger "single-string" style that allowed him to play scales and complicated fiddle tunes note-for-note. The Reno style encompasses much more than just single-string picking; double-stops, double-time picking, triple-pull offs—all of these, and other techniques make Reno's playing recognizable. According to his son, Don Wayne Reno, "My dad told me more than once that the reason he started his own style of banjo picking was this: When he came out of the service, many people said 'You sound just like Earl Scruggs.' He said that really bothered him considering he never played a banjo while he was in the service, and when he returned to the U.S., he continued to play in the style he had always played before."[3][4]

In 1948 Reno became a member of the Bluegrass Boys. Two years later, with Red Smiley, he formed Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups, a partnership that lasted fourteen years. Among their hits were "I'm Using My Bible For A Road Map", "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could" and "Don't Let Your Sweet Love Die". Included in this lineup was his son, Ronnie Reno, who played mandolin. Videos from those days are shown regularly on Ronnie's show on RFD-TV. In 1964, after the retirement of Red Smiley, Reno and guitarist Bill Harrell formed Reno & Harrell. Red Smiley joined Reno and Harrell in 1969, remaining with them until his death in 1972. From 1964 until 1971 Reno also performed with Benny Martin. In the 1970s he played with The Good Ol' Boys, composed of Frank Wakefield on mandolin, David Nelson on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Pat Campbell on bass. Reno began performing with his sons Don Wayne and Dale in later years.
Virtually unrivalled among his contemporaries for his mastery of the five-string banjo, Don Reno teamed with Red Smiley to create some of the finest bluegrass recordings of the postwar era -- a superb tenor vocalist and songwriter, Reno also proved crucial to the emergence of the guitar as one of bluegrass' lead instruments, and ranks alongside the likes of Bill Monroe among the genre's true pioneers. Reno was born in Spartanburg, SC, on February 21, 1926, and raised primarily in rural North Carolina; at age five he built his first banjo, and as a teen backed the Morris Brothers and Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. He also recorded with Woody Guthrie and was asked to join Monroe's Blue Grass Boys before serving in the military from 1944 to 1946. Upon returning from duty Reno fronted a local South Carolina band before replacing Earl Scruggs in the Blue Grass Boys, where like his predecessor he was key in popularizing the three-finger roll technique of banjo playing.

Reno left Monroe in 1949 to join Tommy Magness and His Tennessee Buddies; among his bandmates was guitarist Smiley, and while cutting a 1951 session with Magness for King Records subsidiary Federal, label owner Syd Nathan was so impressed by Reno and Smiley's interplay that he soon arranged for the duo to record under their own names. A marathon 16-song studio date the following January launched their career as headliners, with the Reno-penned hit "I'm Using My Bible for a Road Map" proving so successful it reportedly pulled King Records back from the brink of bankruptcy. Despite the popularity of their records, the duo proved unable to keep together their touring band, the Tennessee Cut-Ups, so in between sessions for King they worked independently, which allowed Reno to reunite with Smith; together they recorded the classic 1955 instrumental "Feuding Banjos," which was later retitled "Dueling Banjos" for its unauthorized use in the 1972 film Deliverance.

In May of 1955 Reno and Smiley organized the definitive lineup of the Tennessee Cut-Ups, including fiddler Mack Magaha and bassist John Palmer; a regular gig at Richmond, VA, station WRVA's Old Dominion Barn Dance finally afforded the group the opportunity to continue full-time, and over the next nine years they recorded a series of influential sides for King including "I Know You're Married," "Don't Let Your Sweet Love Die," and "Please Remember That I Love You." At the peak of their popularity, the duo also hosted Top of the Morning, a hit daily television show which ran for some seven years. However, in 1964 diabetes forced Smiley to retire from the road, and in late 1966 Reno began a new partnership with singer/multi-instrumentalist Bill Harrell which continued for a decade, a period which coincided with a resurgence in public interest in bluegrass as a result of a growing festival circuit. A much briefer liaison with fiddler Benny Martin also launched the country chart hit "A Soldier's Prayer in Vietnam."

During the early '70s Reno and Harrell recorded a series of LPs for labels including Monument, Dot, and CMH; on occasion Smiley returned to the fold as well, making his final live appearance just months before his death on January 2, 1972. After Reno and Harrell went their separate ways in autumn 1976, the former settled in Lynchburg, VA, where he began performing alongside sons Don, Wayne, Dale, and Ronnie; in 1979, he also again re-teamed with Smith for the album Arthur Smith and Don Reno Feudin' Again. Reno died October 16, 1984; his sons later recorded as the Reno Brothers.

Primary Instruments (he played and recorded on all bluegrass instruments): Banjo, Guitar

"[Snuffy] Jenkins was the man that told me and showed me how to use the third finger on a banjo. He took time out with me when I was very young."
"The Don Reno Story, Part 1: The Early Years," interview with Bill Vernon, Muleskinner News, June, 1973.

Approximately 500 songs and instrumentals (some co-written with Red Smiley), making Reno the most prolific composer in bluegrass music history
"Banjo Riff"
"Charlotte Breakdown"
"Country Boy Rock & Roll"
"Drifting With the Tide"
"Get Behind Me Satan"
"I Know You're Married"
"I'm Using My Bible for a Roadmap"
"Let's Live for Tonight
"Maybe You Will Change Your Mind"
"No Longer a Sweetheart of Mine"
"Talk of the Town"
"There's Another Baby"
"Trail of Sorrow"
"Unwanted Love"

"Most of the time we'd leave here and we didn't even know what songs we was gonna [record]. Don would write most of ‘em on the way to Cincinnati."
John Palmer, quoted by Gary Reid in the liner notes to Don Reno & Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, 1951-1959, King Records, 1993.

Early influences
Delmore Brothers
Tommy Magness
Blue Sky Boys
Shelton Brothers
J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers
Snuffy Jenkins

Came to fame with:
Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, 1951-1965

Performed with
The Morris Brothers, Spartanburg, SC, 1940
Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks, 1940-1943, 1952-1955
Carolina Hillbillies, Spartanburg, SC, 1943-1944, 1948
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1948-1949
Tommy Magness and the Tennessee Buddies, Roanoke, VA, 1949-1951
Toby Stroud and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, Wheeling, WV, 1951
Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, 1951-1965
Don Reno, Benny Martin and the Tennessee Cut-ups, 1965-1966
Don Reno, Bill Harrell and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, 1966-1977
Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-ups, 1977-1984

Led the way
• Pre-empted by Earl Scruggs as the first prominent three-finger banjo player during Reno's World War II service, Don went on to create a distinctively different banjo style, featuring single-string and jazzy chordal phrases adapted from the guitar.
• First prominent flat-picking lead guitarist in bluegrass.
• With Arthur Smith, recorded top-ten hit "Guitar Boogie" on the guitar in the mid ‘40s and the original release of "Feuding Banjos" in 1955.
• Reno and Harrell were the first country act to perform at the United Nations in New York City.
• Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 1992

By the Way
• Could play banjo or guitar in any key without a capo.
• Mentored 14-year-old Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland in a twin electric guitar combo, 1948.
• None of the members of the Tennessee Cut-Ups were from Tennessee.
• In a hurry to cover another version on the market in 1955, Don recorded "Home Sweet Home" by himself - overdubbing three vocal parts, guitar, banjo, bass and snare drum.
• Released the single "Jimmy Caught the Dickens" as "Chick and his Hot Rods," out of concern that Reno and Smiley fans wouldn't appreciate the rockabilly arrangement.
• Not the most astute businessman, Don included reference to his disastrous used-car enterprise in "Your Mama Didn't Raise No Idiot," 1966.
• Sons Ronnie, Dale, and Don Wayne all went on to prominence in bluegrass and country music after performing with the Tennessee Cut-Ups.

Don Reno burned with creative intensity. From his youngest years through a distinguished career in music, he was always "on" as a showman, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist of prodigious talent, songwriter and composer. He generously devoted time and attention to fans and fellow artists. Never content with the status quo, he pushed edges, cross-fertilized musical genres, and invented styles to fit the times - picture a "bluegrass Chuck Berry."

What stands out in remembering Don Reno was his energy. He was capable of writing 10 or 15 songs at a stretch. He could hold an audience's attention for every moment of his live performances. He worked marathon recording sessions and traveled hundreds of miles between shows. Coming of age in the Depression and World War II, Don never achieved great economic success. Rock and roll arose just as his career began to blossom. Although he earned fame, the attention he received from the recording and broadcast industries and the size of his audiences suffered accordingly.

Don Reno's legacy in bluegrass was under-appreciated in earlier days. His approach to music was more innovative than traditional, so he received less attention from folk scholars than some of his peers. He wasn't based in Nashville, and recorded for labels that had regional or limited distribution. But new generations continue to discover and treasure Don Reno's huge recording catalog and a few surviving live show tapes and videos.

Don Reno was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and reared in nearby Clyde, North Carolina. His immediate family wasn't musical, but much-older brother Harley married a girl whose brothers had a band. From that source, Don was exposed to fiddlers Art Wooten and Tommy Magness. The first time he picked up a banjo, at the age of five, he found that he could play "Brown's Ferry Blues." He and a friend improvised a banjo, and Reno owned a guitar by the time he was eight. Snuffy Jenkins was his direct influence for a three-finger banjo style. With eclectic musical tastes, Reno injected blues and jazz into his playing. He wavered between guitar and banjo, and was a star on both.

Before his teens, the young man was performing on the radio, first as a solo act on guitar and harmonica, then as a banjoist for the Morris Brothers. Earl Scruggs visited the radio station where they played, and replaced Reno with the Morris Brothers in early 1942. Don went on to Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks, where he played a variety of instruments and performed comedy. In 1943, Bill Monroe came through town and offered Don Reno a job as his first banjo player.

Reno, however, determined to join the Army, passed his physical, and was inducted in March of 1944. He turned down a musician posting (terming it "a chicken job") and served as company barber with Merrill's Marauders in Burma and China. After the war, he operated a South Carolina grocery store and played jazz and country music at night.

In 1948, hearing on the Grand Ole Opry that Earl Scruggs had left Bill Monroe, Reno drove to Nashville and then to Taylorsville, North Carolina. Without invitation, he uncased his banjo and joined the band onstage in the middle of their performance. Reno stayed with them until July of 1949, sharing the stage at various times with Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, Joel Price, Jackie Phelps, Benny Martin, and Mac Wiseman, and doubling as left fielder and third baseman with Monroe's baseball club.

Weak from a recurrence of malaria contracted in the service, Reno left the Blue Grass Boys and formed a band in South Carolina with nephew Verlon Reno. Later in 1949, he was called to Roanoke, Virginia, to work with Tommy Magness and the Tennessee Buddies. North Carolinian Red Smiley was already in the group. Reno and Smiley found that their talents meshed well and decided to team up as the Tennessee Cut-Ups in South Carolina. Their first 16 recordings for King were made in January, 1952, including their first release, "I'm Using My Bible for a Road Map." By the time that enduring hit was released, the Cut-Ups had disbanded and Don Reno had rejoined Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith on radio and television in Charlotte.

Reno and Smiley continued to record before reforming as a touring act in 1955 with their classic band: Mack Magaha on fiddle, John Palmer on bass, and country music impresario Carlton Haney as manager. Their first session together, in August, 1956, produced "Country Boy Rock ‘n Roll," "No Longer a Sweetheart of Mine," and their most popular composition, "I Know You're Married (But I Love You Still)."

During the next decade, the Tennessee Cut-Ups were red hot in the southeast and mid-Atlantic, appearing on television in Richmond, Petersburg, Roanoke, and Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Washington, DC. The band's alter egos -- Chicken Hotrod (Don), Pansy (Red in a dress) and the Banty Roosters - were particular audience favorites. Don's son Ronnie joined the band on mandolin in 1956, at the age of eight. In February, 1965, Red Smiley's poor health caused him to retire from the road, just after Reno and Smiley's first and only college concert, at Temple University.

In September, 1965, Don Reno and his reformed Tennessee Cut-Ups appeared at the first multi-day bluegrass festival, at Fincastle, Virginia. There he announced a short-lived partnership with fiddler Benny Martin. From late 1966 to early 1977, Don Reno teamed with Bill Harrell. Red Smiley came back from semi-retirement and toured with them from 1969 until his death in early 1972. A variety of other musicians in this era included fiddler Buck Ryan and bassist Ed Ferris. Younger sons Dale and Don Wayne joined in the late 1970s on mandolin and banjo, respectively. The end of a legendary career came in October, 1984, when Don Reno succumbed to complications of diabetes.

"Anything that I ever had in my head, it seemed like I could put on the neck of an instrument."
"The Don Reno Story, Part 1: The Early Years," interview with Bill Vernon, Muleskinner News, June, 1973.

"Instrumentals sold almost as good as songs did for us. When Syd [Nathan, King Records] would release a song on a single, he'd always put an instrumental on the back... a lot of DJs used the instrumentals as theme songs."
"The Don Reno Story, Part 4: the Glory Years," interview with Bill Vernon, Muleskinner News, December, 1973.

"[Bluegrass is] the music that gives you a feel. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, it'll make you want to dance. There's about seven moods in bluegrass music and when you get your mood changed about seven times in 30 minutes, you've got a tiger by the tail, I'll tell you.

Don Reno died in 1984 at the age of 57. He is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1992 he was posthumously inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.

~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi