Fans these days might best recognize Ronnie Reno from his television show on RFD-TV, Reno’s Old Time Music, where he spotlights numerous classic and contemporary bluegrass and country artists, or simply from the fact that he is the legendary Don Reno’s son. However, many folks consider Reno himself a legend – his music career began when he was just a kid, playing with his dad in Reno & Smiley. He was a part of many of the Osborne Brothers’ most famous recordings, and then slipped over into the country world as part of Merle Haggard’s band and as a solo artist, songwriter, and producer. He recently released his first album in over ten years, an almost all-original effort from Rural Rhythm titled Lessons Learned.
Lessons Learned is eleven tracks full of solid, country-tinged traditional bluegrass. Though the album is unmistakably a bluegrass record, Reno’s sense of music and playing style were undoubtedly shaped in a time when the lines between bluegrass and country were a bit more blurred. Both his vocals and his style of guitar playing have a classic country flair to them, and popular session musician Harry Stinson, who is also featured on RFD-TV as part of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives, provides tasteful rhythm on the drums throughout the album.
Reno wrote or co-wrote all but two songs here, and offers up a nice mixture of love and lonesome. Among the standouts for traditional bluegrass fans will be Sweet Rosa Lee, an uptempo, grassy love song set in the mountains of Kentucky. The lyrics and story are fairly simple (the singer is on his way home to see the one he loves), but it’s enjoyable to listen to and nicely performed. Bad News at Home has an obvious Haggard influence in both its sound and lyrics. According to the liner notes, Reno wrote the song while “thinking of the times I had messed up at home while staying out too late and playing music.” The number, which finds the singer lamenting his bad luck and his wife’s leaving, has a fun bounce to it and fine instrumentation from Steve Day on fiddle and Mike Scott on banjo.
Lower Than Lonesome is a nice opener for the album, in the fine bluegrass tradition of happy-sounding songs about being sad, while the title track has a slower, easy-going feel and is told from the perspective of a man looking back on the good and bad choices of his younger days. In contrast, there are also several thoughtful love songs, including I Think of You, which has a gentle, fiddle and mandolin-guided feel, and the mid-tempo All That’s Worth Remembering, which was co-written by Reno with Wayne Carson.
The two songs not written by Reno are a fine, banjo-led version of the classic Trail of Sorrow, which was written by his father, and a cover of traditional country number Always Late, which was written and first recorded by Lefty Frizzell but also popularized by Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, among others. Frizzell’s son David shares the vocals with Reno on this version, which is another track that shows an obvious Haggard influence. As a fun treat for mandolin fans, this song has three of them, played by Reno, Jackie Miller, and John Maberry.
Lessons Learned is not necessarily a theme album, but a constant thread of looking back, remembering, and reflecting runs through almost every song here. It works well for someone who’s coming back to recording his own music after a decade or more focused on other projects, and it results in an album that fans of both more traditional and contemporary bluegrass should enjoy.
For more information on Ronnie Reno, visit his website at www.ronniereno.com. His new album can be purchased from a variety of online music retailers.