Ronnie Reno is, I hate to say it, one of the last of a dying breed. He began his career in music at age 8, and while he’s spent a lot of time on stage, throughout his career it was mostly in the service of people that claimed a larger part of the spotlight: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, the Osborne Brothers, Johnny Cash.
The reason for remaining a part of the game for so long, if not commanding a greater portion of the spotlight, is because not only is he a brilliant, he is also tenacious. When he was 8, he stood on a milk carton to be seen. In a sense, he’s been standing on that milk carton ever since for no other reason, perhaps, than it’s just what he had to do. For him it was a job, just as making movies was for James Stewart. Someone once asked Steward why he made some duds, even later in his career, and his response was, well, it’s my job. If I’m not working, and I’m offered something, I take it. There are few stars in Hollywood like that today, and I’d venture there are few bluegrass musicians like Reno anywhere. He’s out there doing it because, well, that’s what he does.
This album, “Lessons Learned,” brings all of that to the fore. You can hear his experience in his voice and his mandolin. It’s called confidence. Which is different than bravado, of course. You can hear that too. Just rock solid, take it or leave it confidence. He’s not trying to impress anyone, he’s just trying to present some songs, and he does it impeccably.
Part of that, though, means that he’s not reaching beyond his audience, which is one that straddles bluegrass and country music. It’s traditional in the sense that he’s not breaking any barriers, yet the production is slicker on this project than some bluegrass audiences might like. There was quite a bit of knob-twiddling in the studio, which is unfortunate, as it didn’t add anything. Some might say that evened some things out, while others might feel it removed something. A bit of grit would serve the sentiments. There are drums throughout, and they are emblematic of a production style that comes more from Nashville than Asheville. Again, it depends on what you like, I suppose.
The sentiments here are more typical of country music, which is where Reno spent most of his career. Sorrow, lost loves, and, yes, lessons learned, and it’s not calculus he’s talking about. The band, however, is strong, and Reno’s mandolin—something that gets a particularly welcome outing on “Reno’s Mando Magic”—is worth the price of admission.
No, it won’t burn up the charts. But, a fall day, in the car, Reno’s a fine companion to have along.