Don Reno & Red Smiley
On The Air
Copper Creek CCCD-0128
Copper Creek CCCD-0127
The Stanley Brothers
Shadows of the Past
Copper Creek CCCD-0101
review by Art Menius
During the 1950s Don Reno & Red Smiley enjoyed consistent success throughout the mid-Atlantic states. Their distinctive sound came closest to mainstream country of all the ensembles now called bluegrass. They spent, however, a decade as hosts of a daily sunrise television show in Roanoke, Virginia. That permitted them to thrive regionally during the country music slump of the late 1950s, but kept them chained to a 300 miles radius of Roanoke when their contemporaries found big new audiences among colleges and folk venues and festivals. As a result, one of the most musically advanced, versatile, and entertaining bluegrass bands has never received its due.
Two new CD’s of live performances by Reno & Smiley demonstrate their expertise at both artistic creativity and showmanship. They’d doing anything from maudlin recitations to comedy to a ten years old Ronnie Reno singing a ditty called “’Lasses” to please the crowds. On The Air consists of three separate short radio shows from 1957, 1958, and 1959 plus a 1960 performance on Don Owens’ show on WTTG-TV in Washington, DC. The latter includes discussion of a show a few days before that some feel was the first bluegrass festival. On Stage mixes and matches from two 1957 and 1958 shows at popular hillbilly music parks north of Baltimore. Smiley’s warm singing engages the listener while Reno unleashes his innovative banjo work, influenced heavily by tenor styling and chordings, finding an able foil in fiddler Mack Magaha, later of Porter Wagoner’s band. They apply themselves to not only their own songs and gospel, bluegrass, and traditional country standards, but remarkable covers of contemporary country hits.
The Stanley Brothers went squarely for folk and college market, and their world weary mountain naturalism found an appreciative audience there. Carter Stanley’s 1966 death and Ralph Stanley’s development of his own powerful style leaves the Stanley Brothers frozen in legendary perfection. When released on LP Shadows of the Past put Copper Creek Records on the map and inspired a flood live Stanley Brothers albums for an audience starved for new material. The reissue makes it easy to understand why. The performances define mountain soul on a thoughtful selection of songs which they did not record commercially. Taken from hillbilly park shows of the late 1950s and a lengthy segment from a 1962 concert at Oberlin College, these tapes show Carter at the height of his emotional power as a singer, Ralph as a full young singer and dazzling banjo player in a variety of styles, and George Shuffler’s unique lead guitar work. It also captures the masterful rube comedy of Chick Stripling and his straight man Carter.
Listeners get a heaping helping of genuine 1950s country music as it actually sounded complete with laughter, between song patter, comedy, and pitches for upcoming concerts by two seminal outfits subsequently inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor. Of the two Reno & Smiley discs On The Air features superior sound quality, but better material and performances makes On Stage the narrow choice. The Stanley Brothers CD proves absolutely essential for fans of classic bluegrass, as are the two recent American CD’s of their Mercury and Columbia work.. Boxed sets of Starday and King recordings by both pairs of duos are also highly recommended.