RONNIE RENO, Bluegrass Music’s Youngest Old Timer

Bluegrass Music’s Youngest Old Timer
By Larry Nager 

Ronnie Reno hosts the top national bluegrass TV show, his Reno’s Old Time Music Festival airing in more than sixty million households nationally on RFD/FamilyNet TV and its associated channels. He started the show twenty years ago on the Americana channel and has stayed true to his original idea of presenting bluegrass Hall of Famers and up-and-comers, in formal performances as well as casual, but revealing interviews and, best of all, impromptu jam sessions.

Reno has produced CDs and DVDs from the shows, but one of his true labors of love is reviving vintage video, going all the way back to his dad Don Reno’s pioneering TV show with partner Red Smiley, as well as retrospective DVDs of Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman, and other bluegrass greats. He’s also a CD producer, his newest project a duo album by Mac Wiseman and country icon Merle Haggard. (He produced Haggard’s The Bluegrass Sessions a few years back.) He’s done TV specials on Kentucky’s musical heritage and has more such documentaries in the works. When not behind the cameras or working in his production office, you can find him on the road leading his fine Reno Tradition band.

With so many productions, so many of them involving video, I joke with him that he’s becoming “The bluegrass Dick Clark.” He laughs, but he seems to like the comparison. He shares a vision and a work ethic with the late pop music impresario, but Reno’s focus is on the traditional music that is his birthright. “Projects, projects, projects,” is Reno’s mantra and, like Clark, he works at an intense pace that would wear out much younger men. Clark was known as “America’s Oldest Teenager,” but what makes Reno unique is that he’s bluegrass music’s youngest old-timer, a bona fide member of the first generation of bluegrass who, at 65, has logged almost sixty years in the music business, having first joined his dad onstage at the age of seven.

The Family Business

   “It was 1955, I think,” he says in his office in Hendersonville, Tenn., Nashville’s unofficial bluegrass nerve center. “I started as a little singer on the Old Dominion Barn Dance. They would put me on a chair, and of course I was little, so they had me singing all those Little Jimmy Dickens songs.”

One deafening round of applause later, Little Ronnie Reno was hooked for life. “Once you taste the show business, being an entertainer, you feel the effects of people liking you and liking what you do, and it gives you an adrenaline push, so you just keep going with it.”

Luckily for Ronnie, the Reno & Smiley band lacked a mandolin, so once Don taught his boy the basics, the youngster became a member of one of the premier bands in the earliest days of bluegrass. “Music was around me all the time. It was just there. Somebody was pickin’ something, and Dad was around playing guitar or banjo or fiddle or mandolin. He had all these friends that played this great music. So I just kind of got caught up with it.” Like Bill Monroe before him, Reno became a mandolinist out of necessity. “That was the only thing left to play in the band. They had fiddle, bass, banjo, and guitar. So I was able to sneak in there and chop rhythm.”

While it was easy for him to get in the band, he found that it wouldn’t be quite so easy to stay in the band, as he learned a bluegrass career involved more than just being a cute little kid. “After a while, I was saying, ‘If I’m going to play in this band, I better get good on this instrument or they’ll get somebody else.’ And then the older I got it was, ‘I better learn how to sing harmony or they’ll get somebody else who can.’”

And so began the work ethic that continues today. With the band busiest in the summers and working mostly weekends throughout the year, Reno was able to juggle a professional music career and middle school. He even managed to travel with the band to do their TV shows and make records at King Records in Cincinnati, the pioneering label that was also home to Carter and Ralph Stanley.

Lloyd Loar and Syd Nathan

   Ronnie had been recording at King for a year or two when, on a trip there, his dad found the mandolin that Reno still treasures, his 1923 Lloyd Loar F-5. It’s the kind of story every picker dreams of. “We’d played Sunday up in Indiana and this taller gentlemen came up to the stage after the show and he said, ‘Don, I’ve got a mandolin and I want Ronnie to have it.’ He said, ‘I bought it for my son, and he’s playing a damned old saxophone. It’s a great mandolin and I want somebody to have it that’ll play it.’ My dad said, ‘What year is it?’ He said, ‘It’s a ’23.’ And Dad said, ‘O.K., how much do you want for it?’ He said, ‘I paid $350 for it and that’s what I want for it.’ Dad said, ‘Well, we’re recording in Cincinnati on Monday. Bring it by, and if it’s what you say it is, I’ll write you a check.’

“King Records used to have a loading dock, and you’d go through the dock into the studio, we happened to be standing out there on the loading dock and this gentleman came around the corner with this mandolin. I saw Dad’s eyes get a little wider, and the closer he got, the wider they got, ’cause Dad recognized the Loar case.

“I never will forget it. They’d pack like fifty albums in a box and they had those stacked row after row of these, and they were about three-foot tall, so he put this mandolin on there and opened the case and it looked like it was a brand new mandolin, There wasn’t the first ding. Dad took it out and played it a little bit. He said, ‘Well, Ronnie needs a good mandolin. We’ll take it.’ He put it back in the case and took out a check. When he started writing, his hand was shaking, and I was thinking, ‘What the hell’s going on with Dad?’ By the time he got to his name, you could barely read it. My dad had the prettiest handwriting you’ve ever seen…just really beautiful. He knew what he was buying. He knew exactly. We went from there straight in and took a picture that was on the cover of the album, with the two red coats—one of the classic pictures. In fact, I wore one of Dad’s shirts that day, a white shirt with a tie just crammed under my neck. I didn’t know what I had. I just knew, ‘Man, this is a beautiful thing. I like this. It’s got this hump on it and it sounds so good.’ And it’s been with me ever since.”

King is long gone, but the shabby building on Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati remains sacred ground to bluegrass fans for those Reno & Smiley and Stanley Brothers records, as well as those by Charlie Moore and Bill Napier and other lesser-known classic groups. But King’s owner Syd Nathan was a sharp businessman who left no money on the table if he could help it. He recorded commercial country as well as the whole gamut of African-American music, blues, soul, funk and jazz, including major hits by James Brown, Little Willie John, Bill Doggett, and Freddie King. It was also a unique operation in that it was self-contained, with everything needed to make a record, including the covers, in the one building.

“I had seen smaller studios, and I knew King was different. When we walked into King Records, everything was under this one roof. You backed into the loading dock and you’d see them loading out product and walk in there and there was a studio behind that and upstairs there were offices. Over here, they took pictures. It was all these different departments. And Syd Nathan was just a wonderful businessman. He had all sorts of music going through there. I remember seeing James Brown and Little Willie John, the Stanleys, and they were all coming in there recording when we were there. It was in and out and in and out.”

Young Reno was a favorite of the notoriously gruff Nathan. “He used to call me French Fry,” he recalled with a laugh. “He took us out to eat one day and all I wanted was french fries, so he started calling me French Fry.”

Growing Up Reno

   Reno was also a regular on TV with his dad’s band, which he admits helped him at school. “We did the early morning TV show in Roanoke five days a week and everybody knew us. The teachers watched our show and the principal watched our show, so they let me off. They’d tell me, ‘As long as you keep up your studies and you keep up your grades, you can get off.’”

It was an exciting time for the youngster, being a celebrity at school while learning to be a musician and entertainer at home and on the road. But he couldn’t quite grasp that he was making history. “I didn’t realize what kind of band I was playing in,” he says. “There wasn’t but probably five great bands in bluegrass, and I was in one of them. I knew that everybody liked them and they seemed to have no problem playing their music, but I didn’t pay attention when Dad would write a song. I didn’t know where they got their material, but I knew that it was good and everybody liked it.”

Red Smiley’s health was deteriorating, and the team of Reno & Smiley would break up in 1964 as Red’s worsening diabetes made it impossible for the singer and guitarist to continue touring. “I played with Dad and Red until Red got extremely sick and could not travel, so Dad and I traveled together for several years and then he teamed up with Bill Harrell, and I played with them about a year.”

By then, young Reno was earning a reputation as the area’s go-to utility picker—mandolin, guitar, upright bass. “Anybody that came through Roanoke that was needing a player, I’d go play with ’em. I used to play upright with the Louvin Brothers or whoever needed it.”

With his dad, he played bluegrass events at Virginia’s Watermelon Park, including some of the earliest bluegrass festivals. He was also at Fincastle, Va., for the first multi-day bluegrass festival produced by Carlton Haney, playing with his dad, as well as filling in on upright bass with the Osborne Brothers. Not long after that, the Osbornes needed a bass player for a trip to Detroit. Reno packed his upright and went along, but the Osbornes’ bus broke down in Ohio. Bobby and Sonny’s dad, Robert, drove them to the gig, but there was no room in his car for the bass. Reno went along hoping to pick up an instrument in Detroit. But, no uprights were available.

“We were playing a club up in Detroit and they had a country band open for us and the guy had an electric bass. I ask, ‘Sonny, you want me to play the electric bass?’ He said, ‘Can you play the electric bass?’ And I said, ‘Sure I can.’ So I went out there and played the electric bass. They just fell in love with the bigness of the sound and the extra drive it gave ’em. So from then on, they wanted the electric bass.”

Reno later joined as their full-time electric bass player, playing a short-scale Ampeg. The sound fit the Osbornes’ new commercial direction that powered their signature song, “Rocky Top.” Along with the festival circuit, Bobby and Sonny were regularly touring with the top names in country music—opening large, multi-headliner, arena packages. That wasn’t uncommon for bluegrass bands, but the acoustic bands had a hard time competing with Telecasters, Fender basses, and full drum kits. The Osbornes plugged in to be heard. It offended bluegrass purists, but back then, the divisions were less rigid. Bluegrass was still considered part of country music and all the musicians and headliners often jammed backstage. “A lot of the bands, whoever they were, hung out between shows, especially those coliseum shows, because you had a matinee, and then you had a night show.”

Gone Country

   During those backstage breaks, Reno spent time singing and hanging out with his future boss, Merle Haggard. In late 1971, Reno left the Osbornes and started his own progressive bluegrass band. After spending more than half his life in the shadow of his father and as a sideman with the Osbornes, he had to get out on his own. “I needed to find my sea legs. I felt that pressure of trying to prove myself, other than just being ‘Don Reno’s son.’ I wanted to be known as Ronnie Reno.”

His old friend Haggard had heard that he’d left the Osbornes and, in June 1972, Reno got an offer to join one of the all-time greatest bands in country music, Merle Haggard’s The Strangers. Singing harmony and playing rhythm guitar and mandolin and with a featured spot opening the show, it was an offer Reno couldn’t refuse. But he didn’t want to give up everything he’d been working to achieve.

“I told Merle before I went to work with him, ‘I’m kinda working on my own thing, Merle.’ And he said, ‘Well, come and go with me. You help me and I’ll help you.’ So I went out and opened shows for him in front of thousands and thousands of people for many, many years and wrote songs with him. I got wonderful lessons from Merle, and he’s still a dear friend today. Merle loves bluegrass. He truly does.”

Reno’s first show with Haggard was at the Hollywood Bowl. His first recording session as a Stranger resulted in the number one hit, “If We Make It Through December.” The bluegrass kid had come a long way from standing on a chair singing “Take An Old Cold Tater And Wait.”

“Merle was so hot. I’d never seen anything like it.” Haggard was true to his word, co-writing songs with Reno and helping him land a major label solo deal with MCA. Reno was able to make more contacts backstage at those package shows with Haggard. He remembers singing harmony with Conway Twitty and pitching him a song he’d written, “Boogie Grass Band.” The uptempo novelty was a major departure for the deep-voiced balladeer, whose biggest hits usually cast him as country music’s seductive answer to soulman Barry White. But Twitty took Reno’s song to number two on the 1978 country charts, putting banjo back on the radio just as the pop and rock of the Urban Cowboy craze was about to take over.

Family Reunion

   Haggard’s touring schedule also allowed Reno to reunite with his father after Don split with Bill Harrell. The elder Reno was playing with his two younger sons from his second marriage, mandolinist Dale and Don Wayne, a fine banjo player who played bass with his dad. “Merle was only doing 120 dates a year then. He wanted to fish in the summer and he’d work in the winter.” Since Haggard’s schedule dovetailed perfectly with the bluegrass festival season, Ronnie joined his dad on guitar and his father had all his sons together in the family band he’d dreamed about. In 1982, he left the Haggard band and joined his dad’s group full time. But it didn’t last long.

Don Reno, the bluegrass pioneer who would have been Bill Monroe’s first three-finger bluegrass banjo player if he hadn’t been drafted in 1945, died in October1984. He was only 58. “We were getting ready to do a lot more when Dad passed away.” Before he died, he had a request for his oldest son, Reno remembers. “He told me, ‘I wish you’d carry it on and take the brothers with you.’” Reno did, and as the Reno Brothers, they would play together for the next 15 years, recording six albums. You can see them perform on early episodes of Reno’s Old Time Music Festival.

The 1980s marked a return to traditionalism in bluegrass after the progressive ’70s, a decade defined by such groups as the Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival. The deaths of founding fathers Don Reno and Lester Flatt (in 1979) helped revive interest in the music’s original sounds, and it’s no coincidence that, in 1985, the International Bluegrass Music Assocation (IBMA) was founded.

At the same time, MTV and the video age had come to Nashville and the country music industry was getting into the video business with such channels as TNN and CMT, the latter starting in 1984. Along with short-form videos promoting the newest artists, there was a need for other content. Ronnie Reno saw an opportunity and he worked with CMT founder and singer-songwriter Stan Hitchcock, another friend from his years with Haggard. Reno was soon appearing on some of CMT’s earliest programming, notably the informal songwriter-focused show, Stan Hitchcock’s Heart To Heart. That series’ simple concept—“Just sit on the front porch and pick”—was a perfect fit for him, taking him back to his days as the tow-headed kid stuffed into his dad’s clothes. He and Hitchcock discussed working up an acoustic bluegrass show with the same informality and authenticity. In 1991, CMT was sold to TNN’s parent company Gaylord, and Hitchcock went on to other media ventures, including the independent Americana channel and, in 2007, he started another cable channel, BlueHighways TV, his partners including Ronnie Reno.

Projects, Projects, Projects

   Reno began production on his bluegrass TV show in 1993 for Americana, the only national bluegrass TV program of its day. It was good timing; the IBMA Awards had started in 1990 and there were plans to open the Bluegrass Music Museum and Hall of Fame in Owensboro, Ky. Reno produced many of the early TV shows in Owensboro and today divides production between Kentucky and the NorthStar Studios in Nashville, where much of RFD’s music programming is produced, including The Marty Stuart Show.

Reno jokes that his show has been going for so long that his archives include appearances by both the dark-haired Del McCoury and the newer silver-maned version. You can see the latter on the new season, which begins airing this month (July), with episodes featuring the Del McCoury Band, Rhonda Vincent, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, the Gibson Brothers, Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, and the Chuck Wagon Gang. Reno’s Old Time Music Festival airs on RFD-TV and FamilyNet on Saturdays at 7 p.m. (EST) and repeats on RFD Sundays, at 2:30 a.m. (EST) and Tuesdays at 5 p.m.

Reno’s varied career and unique “youngest old-timer” perspective make him particularly well-suited to producing Reno’s Old-Time Music Festival. His TV experience goes back more than fifty years, but he is, at heart, a bluegrass musician and fan, so the music is treated with the right balance of reverence for tradition, tempered with entertainment value and modern pacing. He doesn’t film in front of a live audience, producing a more controlled shoot that allows musicians to get just the right performance. And his understanding of musicians extends to the thoughtful interviews and informal jams, which he conducts only after their formal performances are in the can, ensuring they’ll be relaxed. “I want to show them in the best light,” he explains.

He’s taken the show to Renfro Valley (and is releasing a DVD version of those historic shows) and has also gone to Branson Mo., teaming with RFD’s other bluegrass showcase, The Cumberland Highlanders. Plans include touring Reno’s Old Time Music Festival to more locations. While he works to keep his father’s music legacy alive, Reno is also trying to avoid the old mistakes. Don Reno was a brilliant, innovative musician and songwriter (his compositions including the classics “I Know You’re Married (But I Love You Still)” and “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap” among many other bluegrass standards). But his fame never matched his talent and his income lagged even further behind.

“I learned the business because my dad was so bad at it,” Reno says, without a trace of his usual smile. “I went through so many lean times with Dad. I remember us having to go to a show date and we had fifty cents in our pocket and had to go three hundred miles. I knew I can’t live this way, so I decided I would become a businessman. I’m involved in every aspect of the business. I have publishing, production companies. I used to have a booking agency.”

It’s all part of that “projects, projects, projects” game plan. His Man-Do-Lin/Lost Echoes video production company has a growing catalog of DVDs, ranging from those classic black-and-white Reno & Smiley shows, complete with Kroger commercials, as well as vintage videos of Lester Flatt’s early Nashville Grass lineup with Josh Graves, Paul Warren, Haskell McCormick, and Roland White, and a Mac Wiseman box-set including three DVDs and a live CD. And for a music that has always lagged behind other genres in terms of promotional power, a half-hour that goes out to sixty million households three times a week is a force to be reckoned with.

“I’m really excited about having bluegrass on national television.” he says. “The response is immediate. You put out a CD in bluegrass, you can work it for a year, year and a half. You put out a show on RFD-TV on Saturday night and, by Monday, you’re getting results, you’re getting sales, you’re getting notoriety.”

 Raising The Bar

   Reno’s very proud of the new CD he’s producing that brings Wiseman and Haggard together for a Mac & Merle bluegrass set featuring an all-star band with Rob Ickes, Carl Jackson, Aubrey Haynie, Andy Leftwich, Ben Isaacs, and special guests Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Sonya Isaacs, and Alison Krauss. Haggard wrote a song for the project called “Two Old Christian Soldiers” and has done a new version of one of his earliest records, Tommy Collins’ “High On A Hilltop.” And, of course, Reno had two cameras rolling throughout the recording sessions, capturing the two legends’ interactions, as well as conducting individual interviews.

He’s planning a Christmas release of the project and some of that footage will likely turn up on Reno’s Old Time Music Festival. One of the new segments he’s been working on is called Old Friends, uniting bluegrass masters in unusual combinations. The first featured J.D. Crowe with Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams, an idea they’d brought to him. He recently did an Old Friends show with Wiseman, Jesse McReynolds, and Bobby Osborne. And a Reno Brothers reunion may also be in the works. Don Wayne and Dale recently ended their successful fusion of hard-rock and bluegrass, Hayseed Dixie, which was so popular in Europe, they would sell out soccer stadiums. They’ve been talking about a return to traditional bluegrass in a band that would include Bill Harrell’s son Mitch. It’s likely they’ll turn up on a future episode of Reno’s Old Time Music Festival.

In all his projects, Ronnie Reno believes that it’s necessary to be equal parts businessman and keeper of the flame. To him they’re two halves of the whole. The flamekeeper preserves the music he loves with care and skill, creating high-quality TV programs, DVDs, and CDs that honor the music’s creators and stand the test of time. Meanwhile, the businessman keeps his eye on the bottom line, making sure those labors of love reach the largest possible audiences.

“Our music has been put down so much through the years. If it doesn’t pass the test of excellence, then what are we doing? Marking time. I’m not into marking time, anymore. I’m into trying to do the best I can possibly do for our industry. If I do that, then it also works for me. As far as being a host and an ambassador for the music and a historian, all that goes together. I’m trying to put the bar up there to where whoever comes along and carries the torch after me will say, ‘Wow, we’re going to have to work really, really hard.’”

3 Responses to “RONNIE RENO, Bluegrass Music’s Youngest Old Timer”

  1. Dear Ronnie:
    My name is Ralph Unroe from Cifton Forge, Va. MY partner (at the time) Frank Necessaey had the pleasure of doing the show from Harrison burg many years ago and then on to Vinton, Va. I also saw shows at the Drive In at Clifrton Dale Park at CF.
    I now pastor a church in the mountains of Pennsylvania but am able to see the show each Saturday night. So enjoy it.
    Mac Wisemans aunt lived just behind my aunt in Cragsville, Va and she spoke fondly of him. While staned at Andrews AFB, I had the pleasure of dining with Mac on steamed crabs I got from Chesapeake Bay.
    Sorry to hear Mac does not perform anymore. I did not know anything was wrong. He is a favorite. Keep up the music and hope to see you someme.

    Take care:

    R Unroe

  2. Mj Dixon says:

    Dear Ronnie: I was wanting to know the address to send you a Cd and Bio from this great band that plays Old Mountian music and Old Time Bluegrass. They are from Pewee valley Ky and are (The Whiskeybent Valley Boys). They would love to have a chance to audition for your show. Could you please tell me how to get the right contact for this.

  3. Mandy Baker says:

    Was the Haggard/Wiseman cd ever released ???? I WANT IT….. where can I order ???? thanks April 2014

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