Who was/is Don Reno & Red Smiley ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Don Reno & Red Smiley
Sometime in the fall of 1954, Dot Records president and founder Randy Wood was having a conversation with Mac Wiseman at the company offices in Gallatin, Tennessee. According to Mac, "Randy had recently gotten word that Hank Snow's current single of 'I Don't Hurt Anymore' had just sold 600,000 copies. The record was still going great guns and had crossed over into the pop field as well. You must remember that this was an astronomical sales figure for a country record in those days. Randy and I were discussing this and I'll never forget the words he told me as I sat across the desk from him. He said, 'One day there won't be any more country music--as you and I know it.' You could have blown me over with a feather! Randy was a man of great foresight, and within just a couple of years I found out just what he meant. With the advent of rock and roll, you could hardly get a country record played on the radio."
However a lot happened in the business within those couple of years and Mac eventually opted to experiment beyond the boundaries he'd set for himself up to that time. After successfully producing a commercial session on himself, Randy Wood offered Mac a job in late 1956 to serve as the company's Artist & Repertoire manager for the label’s country division. By this time Dot Records had left the rural Sumner County seat of Gallatin, Tennessee and moved to Hollywood, California. It was decided that Mac would relocate to California for a year to learn the ropes of the business, then move to Nashville to have a closer pulse on the country music industry. By January of 1957 Mac had moved to California. One of the earliest, quite possibly the first, act he secured for the label was Don Reno & Red Smiley.
Reno & Smiley first got together in December of 1949 when they were members of Tommy Magness and the Tennessee Buddies. They would make their first recordings together with Magness in 1951 for King’s Federal subsidiary. Shortly thereafter they went to Wheeling, West Virginia to work for Toby Stroud over WWVA, before setting out on their own as Don Reno & Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. King Records president Syd Nathan was eager to record them, and their first session in January of 1952 produced an amazing sixteen titles, all written by Reno. However, by the time the first release I'm Using My Bible For A Roadmap, now considered a country/bluegrass gospel classic, appeared in April, the band had already dissolved due to insufficient bookings.
Don Reno went back to work with his former employer Arthur 'Guitar Boogie' Smith at WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, while Smiley found employment with the State Roads Commission there in the Tarheel State. Meanwhile, Syd Nathan discovered that there was a demand for the music of Reno & Smiley on record at least, and he wished to continue recording the duo. Don and Red consented and they remained a recording-only group for the next three years. During this time they produced some amazing songs that sold consistently, played well on the juke boxes, and in many cases would go on to become standards in a style of country music that became known as bluegrass.
Easter weekend of 1955, the duo resumed their partnership on a performing level making their base of operations in Richmond, Virginia where they signed on as members of the Old Dominion Barn Dance on 50,000 watt WRVA, which blanketed the eastern seabord states at night and greatly helped popularize Don and Red's career. They wanted good men who would stick with them, and they found two of the very best from South Carolina. Fiddler Mack Magaha hailed from Ware Shoals, while bassist John Palmer came from Union. Don, Red, Mack, and John proved to be a magical team both in person and on record. After having done some booking for the act, they hired Carlton Haney in January 1956 to be their manager.
King Records released a new single every six weeks, and their popularity continued growing. They even went to New York and appeared on national television on the Arthur Godfrey Show. In 1956, Reno & Smiley worked an amazing 342 days. On December 27, of that year they began broadcasting a daily, one hour weekday television show from Roanoke, Virginia over WDBJ. Don recalled, "We moved to Roanoke and drove to Richmond every Saturday night for the Old Dominion Barn Dance until the Spring of 1957. Our television show with our old friend (announcer) Irvin Sharp, called 'Top Of The Morning' did so well they added one half hour to our show and the drive to Richmond got rough. We took over the WDVA Barn Dance in Danville, Virginia every Saturday night as soon as we left the Old Dominion Barn Dance," which they continued until December of 1959.
In very early 1957 when Mac Wiseman contacted Don and Red about the possibility of recording them on Dot, the duo seemed quite receptive. Dot was having great success in the pop field with Pat Boone and others, and Reno & Smiley hoped that Dot would afford better distribution, and possibly lead to bigger and better things. "Plus,” Mac added, "the fact that we knew each other and they could trust me. And we could communicate. That's the big thing. So many A&R men, great A&R men, and musical people can't communicate with country artists."
Mac's affiliation with Don began when Mac became a member of Bill Monroe's band on Easter weekend of 1949. Mac didn't know any of Bill's songs at the time and Don taught them to him. "Don was a dear friend. I came here (to Nashville) from Atlanta at the WSB Barn Dance. My wife was pregnant and we had very little revenue at the time--not enough to afford a place to stay. Don and his wife Chloe took us in. Of course I was only in town on the weekends and we would get us a place at that time. But through the week, thank God, my wife stayed with Chloe which was a great comfort to me when I was out there traveling to know that she was in this strange town and had someone to look after her. Don was living out on Dickerson Road in that trailer park, but he had one of those cabins, he wasn't in a trailer. I remember little Ronnie (Don's son) just a baby in diapers playing in the dirt out front, and the little girl (Jean) she was older than he, but they just had the two children at the time. But I'll never forget that, and I didn't have to ask for it, Don volunteered that, which made it all the sweeter, you know."
Mac Wiseman was already one of the top stars of WRVA's Old Dominion Barn Dance when Reno & Smiley became cast members in 1955. "For a four piece group, they were one of the tightest little groups I ever saw. Of course Don always amazed me with his versatility with the banjo and because of our association during the time we were together as the Blue Grass Boys, he was one of my favorite people. Don and Red, Mack Magaha, and I, we fished a lot. We'd go down to this little place called Boler's Wharf. We'd fish two or three mornings a week." ...
Don Reno & Red Smiley Sweethearts In Heaven, The Dot Rec. 1957-64
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