Most people who love traditional country music have heard of Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family, known as “The “First Family of Country Music.”
Not so many know that much of what A.P. Carter, his wife Sarah, and sister Maybelle made famous, they learned from Lesley Riddle, an African American musician born in Burnsville in 1905.
Riddle moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, at age eight with his mother. He went to work at a cement factory as a boy, but in his mid-teens he lost his right leg in an accident there. While recuperating he took up the guitar and became a fine player. However, later on he had a dispute over a shotgun, and in the fight he lost his middle and ring fingers, so he had to develop his own three-fingered technique.
While in Kingsport as a young man, Riddle played regularly at the home of John Henry Lyons, often performing with (and learning from) such greats as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Durham, NC’s Brownie McGhee. In the late 1920s A. P. Carter visited Lyons and struck up a close friendship with Riddle, and in subsequent years the two men traveled widely together, collecting songs.
The Carter family were key figures in the Bristol music sessions in late 1927, and during those years Riddle visited them often and taught them “The Cannonball Blues” and numerous other songs that became part of the Carter family repertoire. In 1930 he wrote “Lonesome for You” for the family, giving them the rights to the song in exchange for an new artificial leg to replace his wooden leg.
Because of Jim Crow laws of the day, Riddle never recorded or appeared onstage with the Carters, but “Mother Maybelle” credited Riddle with teaching her the “Carter Scratch,” a technique later adopted by country music legends Chet Atkins and Doc Watson.
In 1937 Riddle moved to Rochester, NY with his new bride and forsook the music business. But thirty years later, during the folk revival of the 1960s, Maybelle Carter told musicologist Mike Seeger the role Riddle had played in the Carter Family story. Seeger sought him out, made recordings, and arranged for Riddle performances at Newport, Mariposa, and at a Smithsonian Institutes festival in Washington, D.C.
Not long after that, Lesley Riddle moved back to North Carolina, where he died of lung cancer in Asheville in 1979.
At “RiddleFest” July 3, native son and renowned musician Lesley Riddle was recognized with a NC Highway Historical Marker dedicated at the Mountain Heritage Center in Burnsville. The marker will later be moved to stand permanently on U.S. Highway 19 near Main Street in Lesley Riddle’s hometown.
Esley: The Life and Musical Legacy of Lesley Riddle, a play with music, based on his life, by Asheville playwright Jeff Douglas Messer, premiered in 2008 at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville, where it was revived this summer.
Performances take place through July 11, 2015. The Parkway Playhouse is located at 202 Green Mountain Drive in Burnsville. For tickets and more information, call (828) 682-4285, or visit www.parkwayplayhouse.com.