An early post in this series, about the evolution of bluegrass banjo styles, devoted a few paragraphs to banjo innovator Don Reno. Although Reno had mastered the three finger banjo style at the same time that Earl Scruggs was coming up, he was the first bluegrass banjo picker to venture beyond the Scruggs banjo vocabulary. In showing that there were other approaches to bluegrass banjo, Reno opened the door to the many banjo innovators who followed, from Bill Keith to Ryan Cavanaugh. But there was a lot more to Don Reno than banjo mastery. Reno could and did play all the bluegrass instruments, and was one of the first bluegrass musicians to pick lead guitar. He could sing all the parts in a bluegrass quartet. With his longtime musical partner Red Smiley, Reno made some of the iconic bluegrass recordings of the 1950s. And he wrote much of the band’s material, crafting beautiful songs that are still performed today. His sacred songs especially are among the finest in the repertoire. For all this, Reno, his music, and the people he made it with should be better known than they are today.
Like Earl Scruggs, Don Reno was a child prodigy on banjo. Born in South Carolina in 1927, he was playing banjo professionally by age 12 with the Morris Brothers. In the late thirties, the Morris band was one of several high quality groups in the southeast playing a form of southern string band music that might be considered “pre-bluegrass.” They are probably best known today for having contributed “Salty Dog Blues” to the bluegrass repertoire via their 1938 recording (they called it “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog”). Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were just getting started then and bluegrass had not yet come to dominate the string band sound. Scruggs and Reno knew each other and Earl replaced Reno in the Morris Brothers band. Neither copied the other-they learned the three finger roll banjo style independently, each having been influenced to some extent by the playing of Snuffy Jenkins. In the early 1940s, Jenkins was the best known three finger banjo player; even Bill Monroe had had his eye on him.
Jenkins never became a Blue Grass Boy, but in 1943 Reno (age 16) auditioned for Monroe, who asked, “Boy, you want a job?” But Reno had already enlisted in the army, and the army took him despite his youth. When Reno returned from Asia after the war, Scruggs had the banjo job and was tearing it up with the Blue Grass Boys. Now it was Reno’s turn to follow Scruggs; Don replaced Earl in Monroe’s band when Earl and Lester left to form the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948. Reno stayed with Monroe only a little over a year and made no studio recordings with the Blue Grass Boys. On Bill’s next recording session in late 1949, Rudy Lyle had replaced Reno on banjo.
After leaving Monroe, Reno formed the first incarnation of the Tennessee Cut-Ups. He also worked with ex-Blue Grass Boy fiddler Tommy Magness. In that band, he met guitarist and singer Red Smiley, beginning an extraordinarily fruitful musical partnership that lasted (with interruptions) until Smiley died in 1972. In addition to having a smooth and ingratiating baritone voice, Red Smiley was a very strong rhythm guitar player. He played a prewar Martin D-45, today considered one of the rarest of vintage bluegrass instruments, and in his hands it sounded full and resonant. The Red Smiley D run, featured prominently in the band’s recording of “I Know You’re Married,” is almost as famous among bluegrass guitarists as the Lester Flatt G run. Smiley’s lead voice blended beautifully with Reno’s tenor (their usual vocal arrangement), making one of the classic duets in bluegrass music.
Reno and Smiley first recorded together with the Magness band. They made their first recordings as Reno & Smiley & The Tennessee Cut-Ups in early 1952 for King Records in Cincinnati. Reno wrote or co-wrote every one of the 16 songs and instrumentals the band recorded at this session. These included songs that became bluegrass classics, like “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap,” “Maybe You Will Change Your Mind,” “Drifting With The Tide,” and “I’m Gone, Long Gone.” In his second banjo break on “Using My Bible,” Reno introduced a banjo sound, very different from the Scruggs style, featuring quickly picked double stops (playing two strings at the same time) and chords to make a bluesy melodic passage. And, demonstrating his versatility, he applied the three finger banjo technique to play mandolin breaks on “I Want To Live Like Christ My Savior,” producing a sound akin to the mandolin cross-picking that Jesse McReynolds was beginning to feature at around that time.
For the first few years of the band’s existence it was primarily a recording act that made few personal appearances. By the mid-1950s, the popularity of their records convinced Reno and Smiley to take the band out on the road. Band regulars for the next decade or so included John Palmer on bass and fiddler Mack Magaha. Palmer had been with Reno in the first incarnation of the Cut-Ups around 1950. But while the Cut-Ups were off the road, Reno co-wrote and recorded one of the most famous banjo instrumentals of all time, second only to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The tune, “Feudin’ Banjos,” was recorded by Reno on five string banjo and featured on tenor banjo a guitarist named Arthur Smith, then best known for a swing instrumental called “Guitar Boogie.” This Arthur Smith is not to be confused with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, the innovative violinist whose admirers included Bill Monroe. “Feudin’ Banjos” was recast in the early 1970s as “Dueling Banjos” for the soundtrack of the movie “Deliverance” and it became a monster hit. Unfortunately, due to a mixup regarding the copyright status of the tune, Reno and Smith had to sue to get royalties.
The Cut-Ups recorded some memorable material during and after their performing hiatus. “Double Banjo Blues,” from late 1954, showcased Reno’s innovative double time three finger style, his bluesy banjo chord soloing, and his lead guitar work. “Get Behind Me Satan” is a spirited Reno gospel composition featuring Don’s guitar flat picking. On “Home Sweet Home,” the rest of the band was not available and Reno overdubbed all the instruments and vocal parts. “Country Boy Rock N’ Roll,” featuring more Reno lead guitar work, was Don’s answer to the new music that was challenging bluegrass in the second half of the 1950s. “Never Get To Hold You In my Arms Anymore” (written by Carlton Haney, the band’s manager) and “Wall Around Your Heart,” have a country sound. Showing that he wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of the music, Reno reached into the trad jazz repertoire to make two banjo showpieces, “Limehouse Blues” and “Little Rock Getaway”
Another Don Reno banjo instrumental, “Follow The Leader,” showcased Reno’s innovative “single string” style. Alternating his right hand thumb and finger picks to pick up and down strokes on the strings, Reno played a single note melody style, which he used in addition to the three finger roll and chord melody styles. Single string style enabled Reno to play the banjo like a flatpicked guitar or mandolin. Some Reno single string work can also be heard at the very end of his solo on “Beautiful Blue Eyes” recorded in 1961 with Red Allen, Frank Wakefield, and fiddler Chubby Wise.
Reno and Smiley continued working with the Cut-Ups in the early 1960s. By this time they were on television in the southeast, sponsored by the Kroger supermarket chain. The Kroger episode linked to below shows off the band’s talents, including Reno’s single string melodic banjo picking (see “Arkansas Traveler”) and fiddler Magaha’s enthusiastic dancing. On mandolin is Don’s son Ronnie, who later worked with the Osborne Brothers and Merle Haggard. During this time, the band was busy working many show dates throughout southeast. Unlike Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Country Gentlemen, Reno and Smiley didn’t get involved with the folk revival and didn’t play many college concerts. Perhaps they felt that they didn’t need the work, and perhaps the folk fans considered their repertoire too country for a folk show. In any case, their failure to cultivate the folk music tastemakers may be in part responsible for the fact that they are not better known today compared to the bands that cultivated a folk following.
Red Smiley left the band for several years during the 1960s and Bill Harrell filled in during his absence. Smiley died in 1972 and Reno carried on with other musicians until his death in 1984. One notable collaboration: in 1973, Baltimore bluegrass DJ Ray Davis recorded an album of duets featuring Reno and Charlie Moore. “As Long As I Live,” from this collection, shows off Reno’s tenor vocal and mandolin playing. At its best, including the songs and tunes cited above and many more, the music of Reno and Smiley remains some of the finest bluegrass recorded during the music’s early years.