Ronnie Reno
Courtesy Photo

Ronnie Reno has fond memories of working with his father Don and his dad's musical partner Red Smiley growing up.

"It took me a while to understand it. I never knew exactly what they were doing or how they did it," Reno told Billboard about the bluegrass sound popularized by Reno & Smiley -- but he knew he loved the feel of it. "Once you feel the adrenaline of being on the stage and you hear the applause of a crowd, it's something that you never forget. You want more of it. I just knew all these songs were being so well-received by the people. They would do everything -- Jim Reeves, George Jones, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs. We did so much television back in those days that our catalog was pretty full."

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The Ronnie Reno catalog has grown quite strong on its own over the years. The veteran performer -- celebrating 60 years in the business -- has just released a new disc called Lessons Learned. In the midst of such a successful career -- including stints with the Osborne Brothers, Merle Haggard and as a part of the Reno Brothers -- he says he has learned a few lessons but considers himself far from done. "I don't think you ever get done learning all that you can in life. When you do, I think it's time to go back to the house."

Some of the material on Lessons Learned is inspired by his days on the road with Haggard, including "Bad News at Home." "Years ago, when I was with Merle, we played the casinos all the time, and sometimes it would be bad news for the band. I remember us being the first band they actually gave suites to because they thought we were high rollers. I was reflecting back to those days when I wrote it. Fortunately, for me the good news was that my wife stuck with me, but she had several occasions that were just like I wrote in the song," he says with a laugh.

Reno spent almost a decade as a part of Haggard's The Strangers and still maintains a friendship and working relationship with his former boss today. "What an American treasure. Those were some great years. He always let me open his shows, then I came back and sang harmony with him and Bonnie or Leona. He's still a great friend today. I produced his Bluegrass Sessions album from a few years ago, and we just did a Mac Wiseman duets CD." Reno also borrows a bit from Haggard on his cover of Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late."

"When I was with Merle, we would do the song, but he would always up the tempo. It was almost a bluegrass tempo. I ended up adding about three mandolins to it, and added David Frizzell to it, which added another flair."

In between working with his father and Haggard, Reno also spent many years with the Osborne Brothers during a period in which the act revolutionized the bluegrass sound. "They were having a lot of success on the radio, and because of Owen Bradley and Decca Records, they were keeping their signature sound." However, a change was in the air. "We decided to take it a little bit further because we weren't getting the reaction onstage when we were playing a lot of the coliseum shows. That's what we needed to compete. We just decided to plug things in. People loved it, and they used it for many years. We had such close harmonies, and the material was so good. We even did a string section on a bunch of Boudleaux Bryant songs as well." Reno remembers the time as a period of artistic growth. "We were taking a lot of liberties, but we were able to do it because of the wonderful sound of the harmonies, the banjo and the mandolin. We never forgot that, we just added to it."

Reno also composed "Boogie Grass Band," which Conway Twitty took to No. 2 on the Hot Country Singles chart in 1978. Having a cut from "The High Priest of Country Music" is something he recalls fondly to this day. "I pitched it to Conway with just me and a guitar singing. He looked at me and said, 'Ronnie, if you let me cut that song, I'll put it out as a single.' I said, 'Great. Done.' As far as I know, he opened every show he did with it after that. If he said he was going to cut it, go ahead and hang your stocking, as Christmas was on the way."

Between touring with his own band, the Reno Tradition, and hosting Reno's Old Time Music on the RFD Network each week, the performer said he has been blessed. "I consider myself very lucky to have been in this world of music and the growth I've seen. I reflect back on those memories. There's a lifetime of them."