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Don Reno

An exceptional banjo picker who performed with various bands on radio and television, Don Reno is probably most famous for his 1955 instrumental recording with Arthur Smith. Originally called Feuding Banjos, it was later changed to Dueling Banjos, and became a classic old-time tune made famous in the movie Deliverance.

Born in Spartanburg, S.C., on Feb. 21, 1927, and raised in Clyde, N.C., Reno picked up a banjo at the ripe age of five and was soon playing along with family members and friends. Listening to radio music shows, he would learn all kinds of songs. By 1951, he recorded his first single with Red
Smiley, whom he continued to record with until 1975. Reno would go on to record some 500 songs and play with some of the greats of bluegrass including Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt.

Reno died on Oct. 16, 1984, after complications from a simple hospital operation.

Don Reno

Legends - A perfect Pick - Don Reno
By Todd Callaway


At 5 years old, Don Reno picked up a banjo and picked out May I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister? —an old folk songand a musician was born.

As the story goes, Reno's older brother Harley played in a band, which practiced at the Reno house in Clyde. Don's first memories of music were listening to Harley's band rehearse, he said in a 1973 autobiography.

One night, while members of the band ate supper, the young Reno picked up a banjo and discovered he had a natural talent.
From that moment, Reno's life would be dedicated to making music.

The rigors of life on a small farm near Clyde—feeding livestock, working the garden and doing household chores—didn't leave much time for music, so Reno squeezed practice time in where he could.

But when he couldn't play he'd be listening to programs on his favorite radio stations Ñ WBT Charlotte; WSM, The Home of the Grand Ole Opry Nashville, Tenn.; the Supper Time Frolic from WJJD Chicago, Ill.; the Midday Merry-Go-Round from WNOX Knoxville; the World's Original Barn Dance From WWVA Wheeling, West Va., and a CBS network show from the Renfor Valley Barn Dance.

"All these are locked in my memory as stepping stones that helped me meet millions of wonderful people," Reno said in his autobiography.

The talent Reno heard on his transistor radio came from Kentucky, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. It was born from the Depression years and gave America its grass roots in music. And from this background Reno would emerge as a premier banjo picker, transforming his unique three-finger playing style into something all his own.

When Reno discovered his talent and desire to play music, the next obstacle was finding a banjo. But with four other children, Reno's father Zeb couldn't afford to buy his youngest son an instrument.

That didn't stop Reno. Instead, he and a friend from across the hill in Sorrells Cove decided to make their own banjo. That friend was J.R. Sorrells, and he remembers the day he and Reno made that banjo.

"The shell of the banjo was made of white oak and the neck of dogwood," Sorrells recalled. "I was just 14 when we made that banjo."

For the banjo's head they used a cat skin.

"I stretched that hide over the banjo, and secured it with cobbler tacks and placed it in the sun for a day. ... We used screen door wire for strings."

"By evening Don was picking that banjo," Sorrells recalled.
From that crude banjo two farm boys pieced together from scraps, Reno became a country music legend.

"If there ever was a legend, he was," Sorrells said of Don Reno. "Don was a legend in his own time. ... I knew then that Don was destined to be a musician."

By the time he was in the first grade Reno had formed a band with some schoolmates. He met Howard Thompson at school and the pair began to played guitar and sing together.

Soon the band had grown, adding a mandolin player, a harp player and another guitarist. The schoolboy quintet would often play before school, during recess and after school.

When Reno was in the third grade, the band had its first on-stage performance at Clyde High School in 1938.

Nannie Sorrells, Reno's sister, remembers that around 1938 the family packed up and moved to South Carolina. She said that before they moved, her father traded a hog for a guitar and gave it to Reno.

"He'd play guitar and harp,Ó Nannie Sorrells said. "He got a coat hanger and made a rack that would hold his harp and he started playing them together.Ó

In 1940, a family friend heard Reno playing and convinced him to go to Spartanburg, S.C., and perform on WSPA Radio, Nannie said. Reno would play on Farmer Gray's Early Morning Farm Hour for the next several years, meeting other performers and preparing himself for a career in music.

As chance would have it a group of boys from Greer, S.C., heard Reno on WSPA Radio one morning and came to see him in Spartanburg. The boys eventually convinced Reno join their band.
The Tapp Brothers Band was formed and had its first performance on WFBC Radio from Enoree, S.C., in 1942, according to Reno's autobiography. He was paid $1.50 in nickels for playing, he said.
Reno and the Tapp Brothers band continued to play local radio shows and at barn dances. Although the band's name changed from the Tapp Brothers to Tex Wells and His Smoky Mountain Rangers, from the Saddle Pals to Bluegrass, then from the Carolina Hillbillies to finally Don Reno and His Tennessee Cut Ups, the members basically remained the same.

Reno on banjo and singing, John Palmer playing guitar, Jay Haney playing the fiddle and Walter Haney and Howard Thompson on guitar.

Many musicians played with Reno in those days, including Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, before Reno put his musical career on hold and joined the Army in 1944.

The early years on WSPA Radio allowed Reno to mingle with professional musicians like Arthur Smith and Bill Monroe and make needed contacts for his future.

After two years in the Army, Reno returned to South Carolina, but he didn't immediately continue his musical career. He instead opened a small grocery store in Buffalo, S.C., and only played music on the weekends at local dances.

After a short time in the grocery store business, he again formed a band, the Carolina Hillbillies. In 1948 the Carolina Hillbillies were regulars on WSPA Radio.

One day while performing on WSPA, Reno wrote in his autobiography, he heard Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs playing on a Nashville, Tenn., radio station.

"They sounded so good I jumped in my car and drove to Nashville,"Reno wrote. But when he got to Nashville, Monroe and Scruggs had already left for a show in Taylorsville, N.C. So he headed to Taylorsville.

"When I got to Taylorsville they had just went on stage to play," he said in his autobiography. "I went back stage, took my banjo out of the case and walked on stage and started playing. Bill said, "Boy I've been trying to find you," and I said, "Well, I finally made it."

By the 1950s, Reno's reputation had grown, and he was playing across the south with his band, the Tennessee Cut Ups.

In 1951 he recorded his first album on Federal Records, and in 1952 he recorded his second album on King Records.

The album featured Reno and Red Smiley for the first time. Smiley would become a regular partner for Reno.

These early releases didn't do well, but they would give Reno needed exposure.

Reno's first hit record was I'm Using My Bible for a Road Map.
Sitting in her Silver Bluff Nursing Home room, Nannie remembered hearing her brother's song on the radio. Picking up the Bible on her night stand, Nannie's eyes filled with tears as she said "I still live my life just like the song says. Don recorded some 500 songs, but that one is still my favorite," she said. "He never took any music lessons. There ain't nobody who could pick the banjo better."

About 1952 or 1953, Reno began playing with Arthur Smith and the Cracker Jacks on Smith's radio station and television show in Charlotte. He would remain with Smith until 1955, when again he and Red Smiley would get together to record several albums.
"I think Don was the best five-string banjo player I'd ever heard,Ó Arthur Smith said from his Charlotte studio in a recent interview. "He was a happy-go-lucky fellow. He never got real serious about anything except his banjo playing. ... He was always on time and ready to play."

In 1955, Reno's most famous song was recorded, Feuding Banjos. Smith and Reno recorded the instrumental on MGM Records, and it immediately became a hit.

The song later would be used as the theme song for the Burt Reynolds movie, Deliverance,and the name would be changed to the familiar Dueling Banjos.

"I think he just stuck with it," Smith said of Reno's style of playing.

"If you wanted to play a song he'd play it right ... Don was a stickler for doing it right. ... He told me a 1,000 times he tried to play the banjo like I played the guitar."

From 1955 into the early 1960s, Reno and his band the Tennessee Cut Ups would perform on radio and television shows throughout the south.

In 1965 Reno again went into the studio and recorded an album on DOT Records.

By 1969, Reno was known as a premier banjo player and throughout the 1970s he released album after album.

"He had a style of his own, just like that (Carroll) Best boy over in Crabtree did,"J.R. Sorrells remembered of his childhood friend. "I can still recognize Don's music anywhere."

Don Reno's musical legacy lives on in his son, Ronnie Reno, who still travels the country playing music.

Reno's life ended in 1984, in the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. He had gone in to have a simple operation, said Jack Sorrells, Reno's nephew.

But the simple procedure didn't go as well as was expected, and Reno would spend the last five months of his life in a hospital bed.
Reno died Oct. 16, 1984.

Jack Sorrells remembers traveling to Virginia for the funeral.
"I'd never seen as many flowers in one place. I counted a half a dozen banjo wreaths, and they played Don's music during the service," he said.

Reno is remembered by family and friends for the fun loving attitude and enthusiasm for music which he kept throughout his life.

"He was always bad to tell jokes and tease people,"Nannie Sorrells said. "He'd tell our mama a story and she'd believe it all and maybe only half would be true."


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