In 1955, seven-year-old “Little Ronnie Reno” climbed atop a milk carton, stretched up to the mic, and performed for his first national audience on “The Old Dominion Barndance.” This performance would prove to be the beginning of one of the most colorful, diverse and distinguished careers in the music industry–one that spans over 60 years, alongside some of the most legendary entertainers in Bluegrass and Country Music history.
Reno was launched into Bluegrass greatness when he picked up the mandolin and joined his father’s band. His dad just happened to be banjo pioneer Don Reno and one-half of the Hall of Fame duo Reno & Smiley. While juggling school work with TV tapings and top-billed performances, young Ronnie honed his chops and was a part of that act’s great recordings in the 50’s and 60’s. He earned a reputation as a fine utility player and picked up additional work with groups like the Louvin Brothers, or whoever needed him.
With the desire to spread his own wings, Reno joined the famed Osborne Brothers and provided part of the trademark trio harmony during the height of their commercial success. In 1971, they were awarded the coveted CMA Vocal Group of the Year.
His talent and credibility as “Bluegrass Music’s Youngest Old-Timer” caught the attention of Merle Haggard, who hired him to back him up, alongside Bonnie Owens and The Strangers. As an additional bonus, Reno would serve as Haggard’s opening act, allowing him to build his own name as an artist.
The transition from Bluegrass to Country Music was a natural one. Reno harmonized and played guitar with Haggard & Bonnie Owens in the 70’s and early 80’s, appearing on ten of Haggard’s albums and classic hits like “If We Make It through December,” “If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” and “Ramblin’ Fever.” He even wrote several of Haggard’s cuts, including the hit “I’ve Got a Darlin’ for a Wife.” Reno also opened for acts like Mel Tillis, Ray Price, Tom T. Hall and even Three Dog Night.
It was also during this time that Reno signed his own deal as an artist with MCA Records and released his debut album, appropriately titled For the First Time. He also hit the studio with many other artists including such legends as Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Willie Nelson and Leona Williams.
As a songwriter, Reno also experienced great success. In addition to his cuts with Haggard and many other artists, including Sammi Smith and Vassar Clements, and his song “Boogie Grass Band” became a smash hit for Conway Twitty.
Reno also celebrated success as a producer, churning out albums such as The Bluegrass Sessions by Merle Haggard and the celebrated Kentucky Gold (which reached #1 on the Bluegrass charts), Swing West (which reached #1 on the Americana charts) and Drawing from the Well by The Reno Brothers, which he teamed up with after the passing of their father Don. The distinguished group was nominated for an IBMA award in 1997.
In 1993, Reno became an ambassador of traditional music, producing and hosting the first and only national television show featuring Bluegrass music, “Reno’s Old Time Music Festival,” which could be seen in 28 million households. The show earned a nomination for the prestigious Cable Ace Award for “Best Musical Series” and Reno became known as “The Dick Clark of Bluegrass Music.”
Ronnie dedicates a great deal of his time in the preservation and remastering of great archival performances of bluegrass and acoustic artists, ensuring not only their legacy, but his own, for future generations to enjoy. His catalog of work during his 60-year career will certainly have a marked impact.