This article originally appeared in the February 1967 (Volume 1, Number 8) issue of Bluegrass Unlimited.
The following interview was taped by Peter Wernick of WKCR, New York, N.Y. at the first annual Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in September, 1965. We are grateful to Mr. Wernick for allowing us to reprint it here.
Peter Wernick: We’re talking with one of the real kings of the 5-string banjo here, Don Reno, and it’s a real pleasure speaking with you Don. You put on a real fine show last night.
Don Reno: Thank you very much. I’m really enjoying myself here at this big bluegrass festival that Carlton Haney’s presenting and especially meeting all you fine dj’s and folks that are associated with bluegrass music.
Pete: Who are the people that you have in your band with you now, Don?
Don: I have Sid Campbell on flat top guitar, Ronnie Reno, my son, plays mandolin.
Pete: How do you think he is coming along, by the way?
Don: Well, I may be a little prejudiced because I’m his dad, but I think the
boy is doing real well. Then we have Duck Austin playing bass and we’ll be pulling a real surprise on you about a fiddle player a little bit later on.
Pete: Now questions about you yourself. How did you get started playing music?
Don: Well, as far back as I can remember, about the age of five years old, I
found myself with a banjo in my hand playing one of the old tunes that I probably heard somebody playing and I knew that I loved instruments and the sound that came from them. So I became solely dedicated to music at a very early age. At the ape of 12 years I went into the business professionally at WSPA radio in Spartansburg, S.C. with a group known as the Morris Brothers, Wiley and Zeke. They were very popular entertainers back at that time. Then a little later on in my career I went to work with Arthur Smith, “Guitar Boogie” was one of the records that we recorded in Washington, D. C. right after the war I believe. We just thought we would do a flip side it turned out to be a 2.5 million seller. Do you remember that?
Don: And then from Arthur I went into the service, into the horse cavalry, was stationed at Fort Riley Kansas. From there I went overseas, came back and did a little bit of playing around Spartanburg again until the latter part of 1947, then I went to work with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys at the Grand Ole Opry.
Pete: There are some interesting stories about how you joined up with Bill Monroe. Would you like to recount this?
Don: Well, its kinda funny in a way. In 1945 while I was working with Arthur
Smith, before I went into the service. Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys came through with a tent show, Sam and Kirk McGee and Clyde Moody were working with Bill at that time along with Cousin Wilbur. Chubby Wise was playing fiddle with Bill. I got into a jam session in a hotel room with them across from the radio station and Bill tried to hire me then to go with him. I told him that I was under the gun to go in the service and if I didn’t go in the service or if something happened that I was physically deferred I would be glad to come to work with him. I turned out to be A number 1, they took me. So, when I returned from overseas I kind of had the thought in mind I might go out there and work with Bill if he was still in operation.
When we got back I learned that a good friend of mine, Earl Scruggs, was working with Bill. Then one Saturday night I tuned in the Grand Ole Opry and didn’t hear the golden tones of Earl’s banjo and I says, “Well now, lets see here, what’s going on?” Then I heard Bill announce that he was looking for a 5-string banjo picker and I was determined to have the job.
I felt like I could hold up my end of the horn if I did some real intense rehearsing out behind the barn. I left for Nashville, Tennessee and got there and found Bill was in Taylorsville, North Carolina so I headed back to Taylorsville. When I got into Taylorsville, I think they’d been on the stage about maybe 5 or 10 minutes, so I figured the proper thing to do was uncase my banjo and start work, which I did, and I got the job. It was a real pleasure working with Bill. You learn something from him that I don’t think you could learn from anybody else. A certain type of feeling that you pick up. That excitement. Something that he puts into you.
Pete: A lot of bluegrass musicians say the same thing about Bill Monroe. They don’t know exactly what it is, but they learned a lot from singing with him. How long did you actually stay with him.
Don: A little over two years.
Pete: Did you record anything with him by the way?
Don: Yes, I recorded some of the early stuff with Bill. I’ve recorded so many
numbers in the past ten years I can’t remember half the stuff that I recorded
with my good buddy Red Smiley. From Bill, I came back to Greenville, S.C, I had a nephew at that time that was like a son to me who was a guitar picker and he wanted me to come home and organize our own group, so I did. I went to Greenville, S. C. and organized the Tennessee Cutups. From there we went to Roanoke, Va. and became associated with Tommy Magness, an old-time fiddler, one of the best, used to on breakdown stuff…
Pete: Didn’t you record some gospel things with…
Don: With Tommy, yes we did, I became associated with Red Smiley through Tommy in 1950. In 1951 we left Roanoke and went to Wheeling, W. Va. and worked up there with Toby Stroud, then back to South Carolina and Red and I became partners. I took him in as a partner with the Tennessee Cutups and I think we worked almost a year down there and business was real bad. We were on the side of the unknown, so to speak, at that time, and that’s very poor country to go to and try to organize a band anyway. The people are just not there and the money’s not there either. So we disorganized in the spring of ‘52 after recording 16 sides for King and the first release came out I think about six weeks after we disbanded. If we’d stuck it out about six more weeks we’d a been all right. “I’m Using My Bible For A Road Map” you know was one of our biggest records. I went back to work with Arthur Smith in Charlotte, N. C. and worked ’til ’55 and then Red and I organized again. Went to Richmond, Va. and from there to Roanoke, spent 10 years in Roanoke. Red’s health became bad. He is still in Roanoke, doing the early morning TV show we started in ‘56 and I’m out on the road touring because I like to meet people. Red’s health just won’t permit him to take the strain of the road.
Pete: Is that the reason that you finally broke up your partnership after all those years?
Don: Yes, that’s the reason. Red Smiley is certainly a wonderful guy. I enjoyed working with him and I’ll always treasure about 300 records that we made together.
Pete: More specifically, about the way you play. You are of course considered one of the finest banjo players today, by just about everybody. Your style is somewhat different. How did you actually start the ideas of your style? You didn’t follow Scruggs exactly, and you picked your own things.
Don: Well, in the beginning, Earl and I followed the same guy, Snuffy Jenkins, Columbia, S. C. We played the same style. Actually, I was the first man with the style, but I went overseas and Earl didn’t go in the service and he got to the front with it first so it was his baby, so I said the only thing I can do is start another style so I did. Taking stuff from the guitar and transplant it onto the neck of the 5-string banjo.
Pete: On the background that you use for slow songs, you have an approach that is sometimes called jazzy. How did that come about?
Don: Well, I have a certain amount of blues in me it seems like, and when I feel something I try to give it to people through the sound of the banjo. I just play what I feel. That’s where my style actually comes from now.
Pete: What kind of advice can you give to banjo players that are starting off that maybe would try to learn from some of the things you do?
Don: Well, they could probably learn some of the things from listening to records that we’ve put out in the part, or try and catch us on a personal appearance. I’m always glad to show any banjo picker anything that I can. It’s actually not as hard as it sounds once you actually see it done, I guess. Learn the neck of the banjo as much as you can so you’ll know where you are on the neck and when you hear something from somebody else’s instrument then you’ll know where he is and you can put it on your instrument.
Pete: How do you think blueprass music should sound? What are your aims in getting the sound o.t’ bluegrass music? What do you try to do with it?
Don: I’ve tried to push it as hard as I could and as far as I could. I think honestly speaking, and I’m a close watcher of the business, bluegrass is fast coming to the top. It’s not reached its peak, by a long shot, but I think it will reach it’s peak in the next five years. Musicians, let’s give this for instance, in New York City today who are playing five-string banjo, mandolin and fiddle bluegrass style that five or ten years ago probably had never heard of it, and they like it. It’s the music that gives you a feel. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you want to dance. There’s about seven moods in bluegrass music and when you get your mood changed about seven times in 30 minutes you’ve got a tiger by the tail, I’ll tell you. That’s my viewpoint on bluegrass music.
Pete: You are one of the best I’ve heard on the flat top guitar, lead flatpicking things. How did you pick up this style of guitar?
Don: When I started in the business, I tried to learn as many phases as I could, widening my scope to the extent that I could make a living by staying in the music business. I always loved the guitar and I learned the guitar along about the time I did the banjo. It was give or take, I liked the guitar better than I did the banjo and at one time I went to guitar completely and forgot the banjo for about two or three years. There was a gentleman I took under my wing at the age of 14 and taught him guitar, then worked some twin stuff with him for a while. You may have heard of him, Hank “Sugar Foot” Garland.
Pete: Sure. Certainly.
Don: Of course. Hank passed me so far and so fast, I forgot about guitar picking. He’s great. But we did have some fine arrangements worked out on hoedown stuff, twin style, even back in 1946. And then when I gave guitar up to go back to the banjo it seemed like there was more demand for a 5-string banjo than there was for a guitar.
Pete: So you stayed with it then?
Don: I decided that if I was going to have to play banjo I might as well learn how. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort and research on the 5-string banjo. I’m proud of it and I think every American should be, because it’s the only American instrument that we own that was invented and made in America.