The death last week of banjoist Don Reno took one of the most innovative stylists from the bluegrass scene. His name is not the household word that Earl Scruggs' is, but like Scruggs he contributed much to the music.
He was almost always a little bit later than Scruggs with the big things -- starting with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. Reno would have had a job with Monroe if he'd failed his Army physical during World War II; Scruggs got the job. By the time Reno got back with Monroe in 1948, Scruggs' three-finger roll had caught on, and Reno was determined not to be a copycat. The result was the "Reno style," which has a more complicated right hand and, because of Reno's consistent aversion to a capo, more dexterity in the left. Reno drew upon his experience as a flat-pick guitarist (he was one of the first) and the three-finger style he too had learned from Snuffy Jenkins to develop his style.
It was with Red Smiley as his partner that Reno made his greatest mark. The two were on the road together for only a few years over two decades, but they continued to record and influence what has become today's bluegrass music. With his old friend Arthur Smith, Reno recorded the original "Feudin' Banjos," which became "Dueling Banjos" -- the theme for the movie "Deliverance."
Reno wrote more than 500 songs. His hits range from gospel ("I'm Using My Bible for a Road Map") through instrumentals ("Dixie Breakdown") to danceable tunes ("One Teardrop and One Step Away"). After Smiley died in early 1972, Reno teamed up with Bill Harrell. When that partnership was dissolved, Reno continued to work with his own band, featuring his three sons. Health problems finally caught up with him last spring.
In mid-June, his band played a festival in Hyattstown, Md., without him. After 46 years, Reno was off the road.