Our recent post about The Reno Brothers reuniting for a special show during this year’s RenoFest in South Carolina captured the attention of a lot of people who still love the music that Reno & Smiley recorded back in the 1950s and ’60s. In the 15 years they actively worked together, Don Reno and Red Smiley released a stunning number of classic tracks, adding dozens of new songs to the bluegrass canon.
Smiley was a soulful crooner, and Reno a banjo wizard with a strong tenor voice, and they had a knack for finding and writing material that fit the rapidly expanding universe of bluegrass in the ’50s. Coming so hard on the heels of the Flatt & Scruggs sensation, Reno wanted a banjo sound that differed from Earl Scruggs’, and he developed a style that emulated Earl’s roll technique to a large degree, but set it off with his own guitaristic approach, especially on bluesy numbers.
Reno & Smiley earned a loyal following, especially in areas where they performed on radio and television. They remain legendary in central Virginia, which served as a home base for many years when they were regularly featured on the Top O’ The Morning show on WDBJ in Roanoke, along with their own Reno & Smiley program.
The past dozen years or so has seen a revival of interest in Don Reno’s banjo playing, partly as a result of the increased practice of the single string style among banjo pickers, and partly from his son Don Wayne’s ability to perform in the style on stage. And the renewed popularity of Don’s playing has spawned an equally strong resurgence in enthusiasm for Red’s singing and their great songs.
It’s hard to imagine a bluegrass jam today where no one suggests a version of Using My Bible For A Roadmap, Bully Of The Town, I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could, Pretending, Banjo Signal, or I Know You’re Married. Reno & Smiley are more than just part of our history. Their music is still being played today.
For folks who enjoy this sound, banjo picker Jason Skinner is a fabulous resource. He has a web site dedicated to Don’s 5 string style, a YouTube channel filled with rare video clips of Reno & Smiley, and a Facebook Fan Club for sharing all this information with the world. Old timers will lover poring over all the memorabilia, and banjo students will marvel at all the free videos Jason provides with tips on playing the Don Reno way.
The Facebook Fan Club is a closed group, but anyone who is on Facebook and loves their music is invited to join. There are currently over 2,000 members who engage in discussions about Don and Red, and share photos of their own.
Next month Jason and Don Wayne are teaming up to offer a Reno-style banjo workshop in Clarksville, TN, northwest from Nashville on the Kentucky border. They are limiting the workshop to 15 participants, so anyone interested in attending is advised to contact Jason by email.