Reno, Donald Wesley
He composed many original songs in the early days of bluegrass, most of which he recorded on the King label with his longtime partner Arthur “Red” Smiley.
Musician. Don Reno probably ranks second only to Earl Scruggs in prestige among bluegrass banjo pickers. He composed many original songs in the early days of bluegrass, most of which he recorded on the King label with his longtime partner Arthur “Red” Smiley. Born on February 21, 1927, in Spartanburg, Reno grew up in Haywood County, North Carolina, where he learned to play banjo from local musicians and indirectly from the radio artist “Snuffy” Jenkins. He spent his early professional days working with both Arthur Smith’s Crackerjacks and the team of Wiley and Zeke Morris, both at WSPA radio in Spartanburg.
Enlisting in the army in World War II, Reno saw combat in Burma as a member of the unit that became known as Merrill’s Marauders. Back in civilian life, the young man spent a year in Nashville with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys as a replacement for Earl Scruggs. In 1949 he joined Tommy Magness and the Tennessee Buddies, through which he met the guitarist and lead-vocalist Red Smiley. As members of this band, they did their first recordings together on Federal in March 1951. Later that year they formed a partnership. They made the first sixteen of more than two hundred recordings for King in January 1952, including Reno’s classic gospel original “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap.” They had trouble getting show dates for a time even though their records did well. Meanwhile, Reno went to work for Arthur Smith at WBT radio in Charlotte. During that time Reno and Smith composed and recorded their noted instrumental “Feuding Banjos.”
In the spring of 1955 the Reno and Smiley team finally got to work together on a regular basis at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, with their Tennessee Cutups band that included John Palmer and Mack Magaha. This group performed together for nearly a decade, dissolving their partnership in the fall of 1964. They continued their periodic sessions for King, producing such classic songs as “I Know You’re Married (But I Love You Still),” “Trail of Sorrow,” and “Let’s Live for Tonight,” as well as original Reno banjo tunes such as “Banjo Signal” and “Choking the Strings.”
Reno had a short partnership with the fiddler Benny Martin and then formed another team effort with the singer-guitarist Bill Harrell that lasted for a decade and resulted in many more recordings for King, Rural Rhythm, CMH, and other labels as well as numerous appearances at bluegrass festivals. He also made two more albums with Red Smiley, who died in 1972. After that Reno formed a group that included his sons Ronnie, Don Wayne, and Dale. They made numerous recordings, but Reno’s health began to fail. Heart problems ended his life on October 16, 1984. His sons continued to perform as the Reno Brothers for some fifteen years until they split into two groups at the end of 2001.
“Don Reno.” Bluegrass Unlimited 19 (December 1984): 8.
Kuykendall, Pete. “Don Reno.” Bluegrass Unlimited 6 (July 1971): 11–16.
Smith, Michael B. Carolina Dreams: The Musical Legacy of Upstate South Carolina. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Marshall Tucker Entertainment, 1997.