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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 504

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This is the grave of Don Reno.

Born in 1926 in Buffalo, South Carolina, Reno grew up with a banjo in his hand. He started playing at the age of 5 and by the time he was 13 he was in a band performing at a local radio station. Supposedly, that first banjo was made with a cat skin. By 1943, Bill Monroe was offering him a job as a member of the Blue Grass Boys, but Reno went to war instead, where he fought in the Pacific and was wounded.

The banjo was undergoing a change in white country music during these years. The old clawhammer style was going out of fashion, with Earl Scruggs-style runs and trills taking over, making a more popular sound. When Reno returned from the war and started playing publicly again, people said he sounded like Scruggs. This infuriated him, as he hadn’t even been able to bring his banjo to the Pacific and so just played the way he had beforehand. It’s impossible to know most of the time who really creates new ways of playing an instrument. Probably, if you dig deep enough, Scruggs, Reno, and lots of other people were coming to the same point around the same time. In any case, it was Scruggs who got famous on it. In any case, Reno took another chance to play with Monroe in 1948, joining the Blue Grass Boys.

Reno left Monroe in 1950 to start his own band with the guitarist Red Smiley. Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cut Ups were a fairly major bluegrass group from 1950 until 1964. While no one except for Flatt and Scruggs, not even Monroe really, was making big money here or having huge hits, in the South, Reno and Smiley did have several fairly prominent songs. They recorded for King Records, probably the most prominent bluegrass label, during these years. Reno’s son Ronnie played mandolin in the band as well

In 1964, Smiley chose to retire and Reno started playing with another guitarist Red Harrell. Smiley rejoined them in 1969 until his 1972 death. In the 1970s, Reno formed the Good Ol’ Boys, which included other excellent musicians such as the fiddler Chubby Wise and the mandolinist Frank Wakefield. Reno died in 1984, at the age of 58.

Let’s listen to some Don Reno.

Don Reno is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia.

This grave visit happened thanks to LGM reader donations. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other banjo players, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ralph Stanley is in McClure, Virginia and Charlie Poole is in Spray, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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