Reno & Smiley Record Trivia

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Above are two scans showing both sides of an old Reno & Smiley record from my archives. Dating from around 1959-60. Reno & Smiley were one of the founding acts of bluegrass music, back before it was even called bluegrass. Don Reno was the banjo player who followed in the Blue Grass Boys with Bill Monroe after Earl Scruggs quit in January 1948. Don was famous for, among other things, creating an entire new style of bluegrass banjo playing, although he was perfectly capable of playing Scruggs-style too. Both he and Earl learned from, admired and followed the style of banjo player Snuffy Jenkins in South Carolina. Bill Monroe had in fact offered the banjo slot in his band to young Don Reno in 1943, but Don got drafted into the Army and couldn’t accept the gig. Stringbean took the job instead, and in December 1945 String quit Monroe, and young Earl Scruggs got the banjo job.

Reno & Smiley had a fine career of over 10 years making records for the Dot and King labels. Their band was called The Tennessee Cutups. They had an amicable break up based on Red Smiley’s delicate health. In later years in the 1960s and early 70s, when Red felt up to it, he would join Don Reno and his new partner Bill Harrell on personal appearances, and share top billing. Red had a beautiful baritone voice and played big runs on his Martin guitar.

So look at this record carefully, enlarge it and really scrutinize it. Do some research on it. Then submit your answer to the question: What is UNIQUE about this record, from today’s perspective? You may find more than one likely answer. Do some bluegrass detective work!

It’s a 45 rpm bluegrass record

It’s an “EP” or extended play 45 record, containing FOUR songs instead of the usual two

There is NO banjo playing on any of the four songs! Great banjoist that he was, Don Reno was an equally adept guitar flat picker (THIS IS THE KEY ANSWER!)

Reno & Smiley made 3 of these 45 EPs with no banjo, all at one session late in 1959.

The owner of the KING record label (Syd Nathan) harangued R&S into doing a full session with no banjo because he had had success making all-guitar records by the Delmore Brothers, Elvis Presley had killed bluegrass record sales, and Syd had talked the Stanley Brothers into dropping fiddle and mandolin and featuring guitar breaks on some of their records. He (Syd Nathan) told R&S “The Stanleys are selling records with guitar!” Only one song from this R&S session got much radio air play though, Eight More Miles to Louisville (a Grandpa Jones song).

A studio musician was playing snare drum. No fiddle or mandolin –only the Tennessee Cutups bass fiddle player was with Don and Red (John Palmer).

EPs were not common in bluegrass; they really only were put out by the King and Starday labels as far as I know.

Additional Bowden Comments

Speaking to the contestants’ replies: Yes, this is an “odd” product for those younger than a certain age. It is a 45 rpm Extended Play (EP). The huge hole in the middle marks it as nothing but a 45. Nowhere on the label does it say 45 (or 33 1/3). It was considered a “bargain” product; 4 songs instead of 2. King and Starday labels put out a fair number of 45 EP country and bluegrass records.

Yes, it is a bit unusual there is no A side nor B side. Again, mostly because of it being marketed as a bargain product, not something for radio airplay where A indicated the side the label considered more likely to be a “hit”.

Yes, the performers’ names don’t appear beneath the song title, but instead to the right of the big center hole. And some of the composers’ names are just plain wrong.

Now to some of the points I “hoped” folks might notice: the words “High Fidelity” on the label!! Nowadays that is the name of one of my favorite new traditional bands. “High Fidelity” was a marketing word that preceded the “Stereo” age. All it meant was much greater care and latest technology in the recording and record pressing process. Cleaner, more vibrant sound was supposed to be the result. Naturally a lot of very old recordings (pre-war!) got electronically re-processed and reissued with “High Fidelity” plastered on the packaging. (The same was done for old records never recorded in Stereo, but re-processed and reissued with “Stereo” labels. They sound weird.) Nowadays I suppose the relevant marketing term is “High Def” or “DDD”.

Now here’s the biggest trivia point. I had hoped some intrepid investigator would go to YouTube and LISTEN to these 4 records. Then the BIGGEST oddity would have jumped right out. First, they all feature a snare drum! Second THERE IS NO BANJO! And no bluegrass band other than bass fiddle and Red Smiley’s rhythm guitar. Yes, one of the greatest of all bluegrass banjo players, and here’s an entire record with no banjo. Don Reno displayed his stunning flat pick guitar skills on an entire 12 song recording session which produced an LP, and 3 45 EPs. This is pre-Doc Watson even. Even Earl Scruggs, as good a guitar soloist as he was, never did an entire LP session with guitar, and no banjo. I urge you to listen to these 4 songs to get an appreciation of Don Reno’s wonderful guitar solos. The owner of King records, Syd Nathan, thought guitar solos would sell more records than the standard bluegrass instruments. He more or less forced the Stanley Brothers to leave their fiddler and mandolin player at home, and feature Ralph’s banjo and George Shuffler’s guitar, on most of their later records. King had achieved a big hit and huge country record sales with the Delmore Brothers’ “Guitar Boogie” in prior years, and he kept trying to have another hit based on guitar picking. In fact, when he booked Reno & Smiley to do the all-guitar session, they couldn’t believe it. He told them “The Stanley Brothers are selling a lot with just guitar!” Not quite true, but you get his drift.

In the 1980s, Don Reno made one more all-guitar LP. I think it was titled “Don Reno and His Golden Guitar” or something like that.

In the late 1940s after Don Reno left the Blue Grass Boys, he played guitar almost exclusively. He taught guitar to youngsters. His star pupil was country and rock ‘n’ roll electric guitar wizard, Hank Garland.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

3 Responses

  • 7” vinyl 33 1/3rpm vs. the usual 12” vinyl 33 1/3rpm,
    EP (Extended Play) 33 1/3rpm vs. 45rpm – but yet same 7” size as 45rpm,
    2 songs per side for this 33 1/3rpm EP vs. 1 song per side for typical 45rpm,
    Volume 1 came with a front/back cover (I assume same for Volume 2), the back cover says 45rpm EXTENDED PLAY but technically that’s not correct – should be 33 1/3rpm EXTENDED PLAY.

  • Wasn’t there usually a side one and side two on these (or A & B)? These appear to be “equal”…

    I agree with Todd R Evans. Usually there is just one song per side on these old records.

  • There are three things about this record that I find unusual, if not necessarily unique. First, although the labels on the record do not say, this is a 45 rather than a 33. Most 45s don’t have two songs per side. Second, the names of the artists, Reno and Smiley, do not appear at the bottom of the label under the song titles. Third, the wrong person is listed on the label as composer of the song “Dark As A Dungeon.”

    1. According to the Discogs website, which has a copy of this record with picture sleeve for sale (the sleeve picture is of their LP, “Country Songs,” from which these four songs were taken), this is a 45 rpm EP, rather than 33 1/3 rpm. A 45 with two songs on each side is very unusual. Most EPs I have seen were 33s and were 10 inches in diameter rather than seven. Also unusual in my experience is that the labels on the disc do not specify the rpm. The flip side of the record sleeve lists other “45 RPM Extended Play Albums” available on King and related labels. Perhaps King thought that was sufficient to let the buyer know that this disc was a 45.

    2. On a 45, the name of the artist traditionally appears at the bottom of the label under the title of the song. Not so here. This appears to be an oversight on King’s part. The labels’ only mention of Reno and Smiley is at the 3 o’clock position with the title of the LP the songs came from. I thought perhaps the artists’ names were left off the bottom of the labels to make room for the two titles, but another Reno and Smiley EP, this one with instrumentals including “Banjo Riff,” has the two titles above their names in the usual place at the bottom of the labels, in addition to mentioning them at the 3 o’clock position. King goofed. Maybe Don and Red should have complained to Syd Nathan.

    3. Finally, “Dark As A Dungeon” was written by Merle Travis. The label of this disc credits the song to one “L. Jones.” That would presumably be “Louis Marshall Jones,” better known as Grandpa Jones, with whom Merle Travis had performed along with the Delmore Brothers in the Brown’s Ferry Four years earlier. Perhaps that’s where the error came from. Also unusual is that having (mis)credited Grandpa Jones with this song, the label on the other side credits “Grandpa Jones” (correctly) with “Eight More Miles To Louisville). Why use two different names to refer to the same man?

    That’s all I have.

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