Don Reno (b. 1927 in Spartanburg, S.C.) was a true musical prodigy. He grew up on a farm in Clyde, North Carolina. His father, Zebulon, could not afford to buy him an instrument, so Reno and an older friend, J.R. Sorrells, made his first banjo from white oak, dogwood, a cat skin, and screen wire for strings. When he was in the first grade, Reno and some schoolmates formed a band that had its first on-stage performance at Clyde High School just two years later.
In 1938, the Reno family moved back to South Carolina and it was there, when Don was nine, that his father gave him his first guitar. By the time he was 12 he was playing on local radio, and at age 14 he became a musical apprentice at WSPA in Spartanburg, where he worked with the Morris Brothers and with Arthur Smith and His Crackerjacks. While he was at WSPA, a group of local boys from Greer, S.C. heard Reno and asked him to join their band. As a member of the Tapp Brothers Band, Reno gave his first performance at WFBC Radio in Enoree, S.C. in 1942. He was paid $1.50 in nickels for playing that night. The band’s name changed several times during the early 1940’s until it finally became known as Don Reno and His Tennessee Cut Ups, but the members remained the same. With Reno playing banjo and singing tenor leads, John Palmer playing guitar, Jay Haney playing fiddle, and Walter Haney and Howard Thompson playing guitar, the band performed at radio shows and barn dances throughout the region.
As a teenager, Reno had learned to play a variety of musical styles, but it was as a banjo player that he caught the eye of Bill Monroe. Monroe asked Reno to join his band, but Reno opted instead to join the U.S. Army, where he served from 1944 to 1946. As a soldier, he fought on the front line in Burma with the unit that came to be known as Merrill’s Marauders. After the Army, he returned to South Carolina and opened a small grocery store in Buffalo, S.C. For a time he ran his store and played music on the weekends, but he soon formed a band called the Carolina Hillbillies and by 1948 was again playing regularly on WSPA. He wrote in his autobiography that it was while performing at WSPA that he heard Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs playing on a Nashville radio station and decided to go to Nashville to join them. When he reached Nashville later that night, he was told that Monroe and Scruggs had already left for a show in Taylorsville, N.C., so he followed them there. By the time Reno arrived in Taylorsville, Monroe and Scruggs had already begun to play, so he took his banjo and walked onto the stage to join them. Reno reports that when Monroe saw him, he said, “Boy, I’ve been trying to find you,” and Reno answered, “Well, I finally made it.” Don Reno was then 20 years old.
Reno replaced Earl Scruggs as the banjo player in Bill Monroe’s band, and it was during his time with Monroe that he honed his skills as a flat pick guitar player and also perfected and popularized the three finger banjo roll technique that Snuffy Jenkins had originated in the 1930’s. He left Monroe in 1949 and was soon touring the South with the Tennessee Cut Ups. Soon afterwards, Red Smiley joined the band as a guitarist/singer. Reno and Smiley would work together for more than a decade and they would make over 100 recordings. In 1966, Smiley’s failing health made it impossible for him to travel, so Reno’s son Ronnie and Steve Chapman became regulars with the band as the Tennessee Cut Ups continued to tour. Now Reno joined forces with Bill Harrell and the two would remain together, touring and recording, for another decade. They were joined by fiddler Buck Ryan in 1968 and by bass player Ed Ferris in 1973. Smiley attempted to rejoin them during the early 70’s but his poor health limited him and he could not continue. Red Smiley died in 1972. In 1976, Reno moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, to retire, but he continued to play music with his three sons, Ronnie, Dale, and Don Wayne.
Don Reno died in 1984, after a five month hospitalization for complications from a surgical procedure. As a banjo player; as the widely acknowledged, “King of the Flat Picking Guitarists”; as a musician who played banjo, guitar, mandolin, and harmonica; as a singer, and as a song writer, Don Reno left behind him hundreds of recordings and a musical legacy that continues to influence generations of musicians in a variety of genres. It is ironic, then, that the piece for which he may be best known today is one that was only made by chance and then used without his permission. In 1955, Reno on guitar rejoined Arthur Smith on tenor banjo to record a tune called “Feuding Banjos.” Their recording was later renamed “Dueling Banjos” and used without their consent on the sound track for the movie, “Deliverance.”
Last Updated by Glenn. Author Glenn Miller.
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