The story of Don Reno and Red Smiley covers one of the greatest Bluegrass eras. They combined their musical efforts into a new, upbeat style. They brought not only music to their stage shows, but a flair for comedy that dated back to the slapstick days of vaudeville. They survived some very hard times, and on occasion, had to give up the music they loved in order to make a living. Through all the good times and the bad, they recorded some wonderful music, and though they are now both deceased, they leave behind a legacy of music that will be remembered forever. Members of the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame and IBMA’s Hall Of Honor (1992), they were enshrined in SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1985.
Don Reno was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina on February 21, 1927, and passed away on October 16, 1984. His three sons, Ronnie, born September 28, 1947, Don Wayne, born February 8, 1963, and Dale, born February 6, 1961, carry on in music, as The Reno Brothers. They currently host “Reno’s Old-Time Pickin’ Party” on cable TV.
Harley Reno, Don’s eleven years older brother, had a band in 1932 called, Harley’s Haywood Mountaineers, and five year old Don would listen to the group practice. The very first time he ever held a banjo, he found he could pick out the tune “May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister?” He first learned to play the guitar and the harmonica, and with these two instruments he played on WSPA radio in Spartanburg when he was twelve years old. He gave his first public performance at a Halloween party when the family was living in Clyde, North Carolina. Don was in the third grade at the time. The first song he did was, “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” from the Delmore Brothers. The Reno Family moved back to South Carolina, where Don and a friend made a banjo that he played until his father purchased one that had United States Flags painted on the head. He played in a two finger (thumb and forefinger) style until he met Snuffy Jenkins, who has been credited with much of the development of what we know today as “Scruggs Style banjo.” Then he learned to add the middle finger to his playing.
Don played with The Tapp Brothers and then joined Tex Wells and his Smokey Mountain Rangers in 1940, with whom he played both guitar and banjo. He then played with the Morris Brothers, Wiley, Zeke and George, and when he left them to join Arthur Smith and his Carolina Crackerjacks, his replacement was Earl Scruggs. When Arthur decided to leave the radio station where they were playing, Don stayed there and formed a band. A short time later, John Palmer, the same man who later played with the Reno-Smiley bands for years, became the bass player.
The Second World War interrupted many careers, but for Don Reno military service had a profound, lasting effect on the history of Bluegrass Music. Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys played in Spartanburg in 1943. When Bill heard Don play the banjo in a jam session at a local hotel, he knew that this was the sound he had been looking for. Bill offered Don a job, which he had to decline since he had already enlisted in the Army and had only to pass his physical examination. When Don finished his tour of duty with Merrill’s Marauders and returned home, Earl Scruggs was making the world aware of the three finger style of banjo playing on the Grand Ole Opry as a member of the Blue Grass Boys. Don and Earl had been friends for some time, and had even swapped banjos. Don commented many times about the great job Earl did with Monroe. While surely he regretted not being able to join Monroe in 1943, he accepted the situation most gracefully.
When Don returned home after his Army duty, he went into the grocery business. When he heard that Earl Scruggs had left Monroe in 1948, he took off for Nashville, Tennessee, only to find that Monroe was playing in Taylorsville, North Carolina. Don just turned around, headed back to the Carolinas. When he arrived at the place where Bill was playing, the Blue Grass Boys were on stage without a banjo player. Don tuned his banjo, walked on stage, and joined in with the band. Bill calmly looked around, saw Don and said; “I’ve been looking for you.” Don only stayed with Monroe for one and one-half years, during which time Monroe sadly made no recordings. Don not only played banjo; he would also play rhythm guitar on almost all of the Blue Grass Boys quartet songs.
Don left Monroe in 1949 and formed a group that he called The Tennessee Cutups with his nephew, Verlon Reno. This group went to WDBJ, Roanoke, Virginia, where they met with Tommy Magness, the fiddle player who had recorded “Muleskinner Blues” with Bill Monroe in 1940. The tall, slender, red-headed man who was playing guitar with Tommy at that time was Red Smiley. The two groups combined for an unrehearsed radio program and continued at that station for the next six months. Verlon, with whom Don sang duets, lost his life by drowning a short time later. After that tragic accident Red and Don began singing together.
Don and Red left the Magness band and played briefly with Toby Stroud, before returning to South Carolina and forming Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. Keenly aware that Earl Scruggs had put the three finger style of banjo playing before a national audience, Don had started moving into unexplored areas on the five-string. He combined elements of jazz, blues, Dixieland, and his own unique methods into the Don Reno Style.
Arthur Lee “Red” Smiley was born on May 17, 1925, in Asheville, North Carolina, and passed away on January 2, 1972. He learned to play the guitar and appeared on WROL radio in Knoxville, Tennessee, when he was thirteen years old. Like Don Reno, the Second World War interrupted a very promising musical career. Drafted into the U. S. Army in 1942, he received severe wounds in the chest from bomb fragments while serving in Sicily. He spent some two years recuperating, finally losing his left lung. During the recovery period at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital in Washington, D. C. Red entertained his fellow patients by playing and singing. Red joined with a band in 1946 that included “Red” Rector, mandolin, and Jimmy Lunsford, fiddle, beginning a friendship and musical association that would last for many years.
The first Tennessee Cut-Ups group included Red, guitar, lead vocals, Don, banjo, tenor vocals, Red Rector, mandolin, Jimmy Lunsford, fiddle, and John Palmer, bass. The first recording sessions for the group took place in February 1952 for King Records. They first waxed the now classic “I’m Using My Bible For A Road Map,” written by Reno. Maintaining a band at that time proved very difficult, and they were forced to disband before the records were released. Red took a job with the North Carolina State Roads Commission, and Don went into the grocery business, until he once again joined with Arthur Smith. It was during this stay with Smith that they recorded the tune, “Feuding Banjos,” with Arthur playing tenor banjo and Don the five-string, that was released on an MGM, 78RPM record. A cover of this tune by Eric Weissberg was later used in the movie Deliverance.
Don and Red would continue to record for King Records, though they did not have an active band until the popularity of their recordings increased the demand for personal appearances. They reorganized in 1955 with Mack Magaha becoming their fiddle player. They joined the “Old Dominion Barn Dance” on WRVA radio in Richmond, Virginia, and started their popular television show “Top of the Morning” on WBRJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia.
The Tennessee Cut-ups became one of the most entertaining bands ever to mount a stage. Their great songs, many written by Don and Red, with outstanding vocal and instrumental arrangements, combined with their hilarious comedy routines made them one of the top draws in theaters, schools and music halls across the country.
The success of Don Reno and Red Smiley’s records, TV shows, and personal appearances would continue until 1964. Then Red’s declining health, caused by his war wounds, forced him into semi-retirement. Red continued the TV show on WBRJ-TV, but went into full retirement in 1968.
Don Reno had a brief partnership with Benny Martin, and in 1966 combined with Bill Harrell. By the end of the decade Red Smiley’s health had improved enough that he wanted to once again play music, so the band became Don Reno, Red Smiley, Bill Harrell and the Tennessee Cutups until Red’s death in 1972. Don and Bill remained together until 1976.
Don and Red’s music has made them two of America’s most beloved Bluegrass artists. Don’s willingness to be different on the banjo led to a wonderful style that otherwise might never have surfaced. Red put that booming rhythm guitar behind the instruments and vocals. When they combined their voices into a duet with Red’s lead and Don’s tenor the results had to be heard to be appreciated.