The importance of Don Reno – especially his work with Red Smiley – in the spreading of bluegrass music and its development as a defined genre of music is often underrated. Not only was he a brilliant and innovative 5-string banjo player, he was also a great bluegrass lead guitar picker – in the days when lead guitar in bluegrass was very rare. In fact, Don was the first to play lead guitar with a flat pick on a bluegrass recording. He could play all the instruments in a bluegrass line-up to a professional standard, was an excellent tenor singer and prolific composer. It’s interesting to note that having written his first song, ‘Jesus will Save Your Soul’, at the age of thirteen, his songwriting tally, by the end of his career, reached 500.
Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina on February 21, 1926, Don started playing music at the age of five and grew up enjoying the influences of J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, Jimmy Rogers and the Monroe Brothers. He became one of the North Carolina school of the three finger banjo pickers after being tutored by Snuffy Jenkins, the great banjo player from those parts, who was also the main influence on banjo player, Earl Scruggs. Don had replaced Hoke Jenkins as banjo player with the Morris Brothers’ band around 1941 and by 1943, long before Scruggs, he was playing the smooth 3-finger roll, now recognized as an essential ingredient of bluegrass music.
The creator of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, invited Don to join his band in 1943 but Don declined as he had applied to join the army and was waiting to see if his application was successful. He had told Monroe that if the military would not take him, he would take the job.
Don was drafted and thereby hangs a tale as, eventually in late 1945, when the position of banjo player with Monroe was vacated by David “Stringbean” Akeman, it was taken by a young Earl Scruggs, who was exempted from military duty to look after his widowed mother. The Grand Ole Opry was taken by storm by the combination of Monroe’s hot mandolin playing and high lonesome singing together with the exhilarating new 3-finger banjo style of Earl Scruggs.
Don did work with Monroe later, after returning from military duty in 1948. By then, Scruggs was a star in his own right and had left Monroe along with guitarist/singer Lester Flatt to perform in the band, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
In the early days, Don Reno’s banjo playing was very similar to that of Earl Scruggs, but by the early 1950s, Don had purposely created a style all his own. His innovations included the use of two and three note chords in the construction of solos or, for slow songs, he would sometimes accompany them double time, using the thumb and one finger of his right hand on single strings to play runs similar to those played on guitar.
On leaving Monroe’s band in 1949, Don met Red Smiley, when they worked together in the bands of Tommy Magnus and Toby Stroud and in 1951 they formed their own band. Reno’s high, clear tenor singing and inventive banjo picking, together with Smiley’s distinctively smooth lead singing and solid guitar playing, created an irresistible combination.
Their first recording with King Records in 1952 was the Reno composition, ‘I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap’, which became a bluegrass standard. During this period they took other work and came together just to record. Throughout the years 1952-53 they recorded sixty sides with King, who, over the next twelve years, released an average of twelve singles a year by the band.
By 1955, to take further advantage of their successful recordings, Reno and Smiley formed a band (at the time they had a hit with their cover of Allen Shelton’s version of ‘Home Sweet Home’). By the summer of that year, they were performing on a Saturday night barn dance at WRVA in Richmond, Virginia on a program on WXEX, Petersburg, Virginia and touring country music parks.
The new band was called Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. It’s interesting to note that their manager at that time was Carlton Haney, the visionary destined to become the organizer of the first 3-day bluegrass festival in 1965 at Roanoke, Virginia. An event that started the festival movement, which in turn provided a home and culture in which bluegrass music was able to support itself and become clearly recognized as a separate genre.
There is an important Dimension to bluegrass music, not always appreciated by its exponents, and that is, as “Entertainment”. Don Reno recognized and fulfilled that requirement to the letter. He acted as emcee and created elaborate comedy routines in which every member of the band dressed in costume. Don’s innate ability to entertain enabled the band to establish a successful country music career at a time when the trend was away from the original ‘Old-Timey’ sound.
It was Don who, in 1955, played on ‘Feuding Banjos’, later to be called ‘Dueling Banjos’ and to be made famous when played by banjo player Eric Weissberg and guitarist Steve Mandrell fro us in the film ‘Deliverance’. This was when Don was working with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, the man who wrote that famous tune. On the original version, Don played 5-string banjo and Arthur played tenor banjo.
Don left Red Smiley and after leading a number of short-lived bands, joined up with Bill Harrell in 1966 for a fruitful 11-year partnership. Don knew Bill Harrell from when he (Bill) had worked as a mandolin player with him and Smiley back in 1955. Under the name the Tennessee Cutups, they initially recorded well known songs written by other groups, with an assortment of minor labels, in 1968 they produced the first three albums of new songs in a style similar to that of the old Reno and Smiley repertoire. In 1969 Smiley returned and began touring and recording with them, until his death in 1972.
While together, Reno and Harrell earned the honor of being the first American country band to perform at the United Nations headquarters in New York. They also played at the presidential inauguration of Richard Nixon in 1973. Although using the instrumentation of a bluegrass band, they did see themselves as a country band, as that was the area in which they enjoyed their greatest success.
In 1976, Reno and Harrell signed with CMR Records before their partnership came to an end in 1977. The reason for their parting was Bill Harrell’s involvement in a car crash in 1976 where he suffered a serious injury. Don used a replacement until Bill recovered, but during Bill’s recovery period, Don moved to live in Lynchburg, Virginia. By the time Bill was ready to return, they lived so far apart that Don thought it better to dissolve the partnership.
Don died on October 16, 1984 as a result of sugar diabetes. He left behind a legacy of sixty albums. The world lost an exuberant, witty and creative musician as well as an entertainer worthy of the description “A True Bluegrass Hero”.