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Sensational Twin Banjos

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Album Review

While cradling this album in his or her hands, a person is holding not only one of the shortest albums ever made but one of the best. The brevity in this case is unique, almost beyond description. The supposed duration designated by a stopwatch or second hand is superficial, as impossible-to-measure cosmic forces of great power take root in these banjo duets like kudzu along an Appalachian road. One man listened to this record 200 times and still was not able to say what it was. In a sense, he was literally struck down in sheer awe. In a less exaggerated example of the record's power, the editor of a Bavarian bluegrass journal sent a writer back to the drawing board a dozen times, yet was still unable to secure any information on the featured accompaniment for banjoists Don Reno and Eddie Adcock. After each audit the writer would return, shaking his head in disbelief, and then ask, "What was that I was supposed to do?"

Critical appraisal that did manage to be published concerning this session, originally released by Rebel in the late '60s, certainly lathered on the praise like honeyed barbecue sauce. Even more significant comments were made by scholars in private correspondence, subsequently made public as part of research concerning a suspected link between repeated plays of this side and global warming. "In a tad bit more than 20 minutes Eddie Adcock and Don Reno wipe out just about every memory of what music might be. It is like a ball of flame, rolling down the road and wiping out an entire marathon of runners," musicologist and Texas congressman Hank Gonzalez wrote to an associate back east. "I am upset about needing at least 100 years to listen to my entire record collection once," the correspondent fired back. "Perhaps I should just destroy everything I have and stick to the banjo duet record you describe."

Tall tales springing from this recording session and people who have listened to it are commonplace in Appalachia, where banjos are so popular that Homeland Security agents search only the people who are traveling without one. Eddie Adcock and Don Reno have a status above the merely heroic in this part of the world; in fact, their place in the scheme of things can be compared to the Norse gods without risk of a thunderbolt hit. Adcock's solos are episodes of bravery, strength, and cunning. An army of attacking monsters is defeated with the pull-offs in a breakdown — banjo talk, by the way, not a description of someone having a psychotic episode in his pajamas. Reno is the banjo deity with the mystic power, playing a chord that begets a palace of gold and silver parked in the middle of a creek. To some, the palace looks like a moonshine still. Adcock, brandishing an introduction as if it were a sword forged from kryptonite, smites the giant turkey of the valley that thought it would live forever. It is Reno who disposes of the unsightly carcass, however, simply by pouncing forth with a triad Béla Bartók would have watered and kept in a vase.

One of the best recent stories involving this album comes from the Hendersonville area, and regards its use as a so-called "grouch stopper." "There are a lot of cantankerous old-timers in these hills," a banjo picker who lives outside Rutherfordton said. "These are fellers who will complain about damn near anything. Gets so you are sick of it — only thing to do is get out a banjo because that is what shuts them up."

In a cranny actually less than two miles from the erudite piano-practice rooms of Brevard College dwelt a grouch who had never let a solitary soul into his house, at least not that anyone could remember. One day a couple of Pollyanna types, Ralph and Jay, decided it might be a fine morning to see if they could stop the old bastard from griping, so they headed up to his property with this album. The year was 1992, so of course it was the new CD copy. The grouch, considered the meanest fellow in the entire area, had a blaster out on his porch with an extension chord running back into the house through a g**h underneath the improperly installed window sash, otherwise known as "a hillbilly setup." He was none too happy to have company, but the sequence of four tunes starting with track seven had its expected effect of elation. "Turkey in the Straw," "Down Yonder," "The Waltz You Saved for Me," and then "Goodbye Liza Jane": in less than ten minutes, the entire history of mankind shuffles past, most of all bassist George Shuffler, sometimes waltzing as previously indicated. The way in which the chorus of "Liza Jane" is played proves that the columns thought to be made of marble in the Roman Forum are actually rubber. There are beautiful bass fills from Shuffler.

"When this was an LP, we used to like to start it with the second side," the grouch lectured his visitors, still not complaining about anything and in fact pleased to note that the CD tracks are configured in just that fashion. The experience thus begins with "Bye Bye Blues," the traveler riding right inside the burning engine room. The original second side concluded with the sixth track here, "Speedin' West," a terrific number in which the banjoists liberate flocks of fluttering arpeggios, stroking a rhythmic mill wheel that fed the poor and hungry, at least for the afternoon.

Something about the CD format really irritated the grouch, though. It seems he hadn't actually looked at the new package when the visitors first skulked onto his porch. "Them damn fools done changed the cover art!" he shouted. An initial letdown about having the old guy whining again was followed by great excitement when the visitors realized what was going to happen as a result. The grouch was going into his lake house. He was letting them come in, too. It turned out he was one of those record collector types. The walls were filled with records, everywhere you looked. "They done changed the title, too," the grouch added, a detail that some of the more illiterate types in the neighborhood would have to take his word on. "This used to be called The Sensational Twin Banjos of Eddie Adcock and Don Reno," he said, seeming to threaten the small CD package with a swat from the original cardboard LP cover. "What is this they are calling it now? Sensational Twin Banjos? That sounds like a headline from that newspaper I used to pick up back when I still went into town."

The main thing he didn't like was the cover, though. A really great color photo of these two banjo gents has been replaced by a portrait painting of shoddy quality. "They always wreck everything," was the grouch's conclusion. "Now you boys better be getting out of here. You done wore out your welcome."

"Damn fool always finds something new to complain about," said Ralph. "He has some valid points," said Jay.


Born: 1924 in Spartanburg, SC

Genre: Country

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s

Virtually unrivalled among his contemporaries for his mastery of the five-string banjo, Don Reno teamed with Red Smiley to create some of the finest bluegrass recordings of the postwar era -- a superb tenor vocalist and songwriter, Reno also proved crucial to the emergence of the guitar as one of bluegrass' lead instruments, and ranks alongside the likes of Bill Monroe among the genre's true pioneers. Reno was born in Spartanburg, SC, on February 21, 1926, and raised primarily in rural North Carolina;...
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Sensational Twin Banjos, Don Reno
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