This remembrance of Alvin Breeden, who passed away earlier this week, is a contribution from Geoff Stelling. Alvin played a Stelling banjo, and the two of them became friends Geoff moved his company to central Virginia in the early 1980s. Geoff combined a number of comments from folks who knew Alvin well, along with his own reflections and the transcription of an interview he did with Breeden in 2002 about Don Reno.
“Alvin was a one-of-kind work of art – an extremely talented musician; and he had a special knack for being able to dissect vocal harmony parts in an instant, and quickly get any of the ‘you’re on my note’ offenders back on the right track.
I always admired him for being true to himself instead of trying to live up to the expectations of others. He was satisfied with his lifestyle, loved his family, playing music, painting, squirrel hunting and fishing, and enjoyed swapping tales with friends.
His passing certainly marks the end of an era. He will be missed.”
Gayle Noble of the Willow Branch Band
Bill Emerson summarized his assessment of Alvin quite succinctly, “Alvin loved Don Reno style banjo, and could play it better than anyone – except maybe Don.”
I could not agree more with both Gayle and Bill. Me and my band, The Hard Times Bluegrass Band from San Diego, visited Virginia in 1978 to attend the first and only Don Reno Bluegrass Festival and Banjo Contest held in Evington. My band played on stage and I got to play with Don’s band, and then be one of three judges for the banjo contest. First prize was a new Stelling Staghorn, so I definitely wanted to have a say in who won it.
I think there were about 21 contestants, and one by one they played a couple of tunes and were judged. Somewhere in the middle of the group, a picker started playing exactly like Don Reno. My first thought was that Don had gotten up to play in the contest to trick the judges.
All three of us judges put that contestant in first place, hands down. He was no other than Alvin Breeden picking some Don Reno classics just like Don would. I gladly presented him with the Staghorn banjo prize, and got to meet someone that would be my friend for the next 35 years.
After I moved to Albemarle County, VA in 1984, I got to see a lot of Alvin, played on stage with him, had him and his band to parties at my house along with Eddie Adcock, James Bailey, Charlie Waller, and friends like Gayle and Robert Noble and their band, as well as other talented musicians who all knew and loved Alvin.
My wife, Sherry, knew Alvin and his longtime girlfriend, Darlene, years before Sherry and I met in 1987. I held a party on March 13, 1987, three days after I first met Sherry, and Darlene and Alvin were expected to attend. Sherry called Alvin to ask him if he knew me and what kind of guy I was. She was not going to attend unless Alvin and Darlene were also.
One thing that Alvin always said every time we got together or talked on the phone was: “I got up before breakfast this morning.” It always cracked me up.Well they did attend, and so did Sherry. Two years later, we got married, and we have to thank Alvin for his help in that matter for which we will be forever indebted.
Like Gayle said, “He was a one-of-a-kind work of art …. He will be missed.”
How I met Don Reno and his style by Alvin Breeden, 2 August, 2002
Transcribed and edited by Geoff Stelling
When I first heard Don Reno in the mid 50’s, early ‘60’s, I was very impressed. I’d buy all his records I could find. At that time, you could buy 45 records.
I had never heard anybody play a style like that. I’d take the 45’s and turn the speed down to 33 1/3. It would be slower and at a lower key that I could be in tune with. This is how I learned a lot of Reno’s style.
In the ‘50’s, Don Reno and Red Smiley played a school in Dyke, Virginia. My cousin and I would start walking [to the school], but somebody always picked us up and brought us back. They knew where we were headed. This would be my first encounter with Don Reno.
In the late ‘50’s, early ‘60’s, my brother and I played with a dance band. We worked a place named Ship’s Park owned by Sam Ship. Sam would book Reno and Smiley the same night. Each band would play one half hour. At break time, Don and I would go back stage and twin banjos. This was where I really got to know Don Reno.
At this time, 1962, Don and Red were doing TV shows in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Don invited me to come over and do some picking with him, so I did. Boy, was I nervous! This is where it started between me and Don Reno. They had one of the best four piece bands I have ever heard.
We played a lot of festivals together. Don would always get me on stage and we would twin banjos. I can still see his grin. Don was a straight going person and what he told you, you could take it to the bank. To me, Don had the best left hand. Also, Don was a great guitar picker.
My first recording was done in 1979. Don wrote the liner notes for us. The title was: Alvin Breeden and the Virginia Cut-Ups, a group I still have today.
In 1978, a person by the name of Geoff Stelling made a special Staghorn Stelling banjo which was presented at Don Reno’s festival as the first prize for a banjo contest. I asked Don if I could enter. He said, “Why not?” I had to send him three tunes I was going to pick [from which the judges would choose one at each round of the contest]. The judges were in an enclosed building with no windows. The music came inside over speakers. We had to pick by a number, not by our name [so the judges would not know who we were].
If I remember there were thirty banjo pickers. I picked number 8. Geoff and I had never met or seen each other and he was one of the three judges I did not know. By the way, Geoff was living in California at this time. I won the Stelling banjo and I had to play it on stage with Don Reno. Nervous again! Geoff Stelling came up to me and said, “You pick exactly like Don Reno!” That was another great moment in my life.
Years later, Geoff moved his business to Virginia, close to where I live. Since we had met at the Don Reno festival years earlier, we became good friends and started picking together now and then. Occasionally, Geoff played some jobs with us on bass when our normal bass player could not make it.
Geoff flew to California with us to play at the Grass Valley Father’s Day Festival. It was a one day affair and went by so fast that all we got to do was eat one good breakfast with not much sleep. We had a good time but Geoff thought it was all too fast and furious…too much travel and not enough playing. [Editor’s note: We arrived late the night before we played after flying and driving a total of 12 hours, played at 9:30 AM and had to leave for the airport by 2:30 that afternoon. Total travel time was about 24 hours. Festival time was about 5 hours.]
Getting back to Don Reno, he could tell all kinds of stories. Some I can’t tell, but one I will. Don knew this fiddle player who was a little on the crazy side. Don said this fiddler would play to those old parking meters. Don told me they finally put him in the crazy house. When he got out, Don Reno asked him if he played his fiddle while he was in there. He looks at Don and replied, “Yes, and they went CRAZY over it!” Great!
This was a great pleasure writing this and I hope a lot of people read it. Most people have not had the encounter with Don as I did. Don, rest in peace, and God bless. You were the greatest.