Kingsport’s Lesley Riddle Featured in Ken Burns’ Country Music Series

African-American Musician Helped Shape Country Music

Northeast Tennessee’s country music roots are well known as the genre was famously born in the region back in the 1920s. But did you know that a Kingsport resident played a key role in defining and refining the sound of that time?

Lesley Riddle, an African-American musician who lived in Kingsport, is credited with having influenced one of country music’s most celebrated families, the Carters. Riddle’s role was so significant that he was featured in the first  episode of the documentary “Country Music,” Ken Burns’ latest project for PBS, which debuted in mid-September 2019.

Born in 1905 in Burnsville, N.C., Riddle moved to Kingsport, along with his mother and siblings as a youngster. That he would end up playing a significant role in country music’s roots is astonishing, particularly when you consider that two serious injuries he suffered when he was in his mid-teens could have ended his life.

Riddle was first involved in a terrible accident at the Clinchfield Cement plant, which led to his right leg being amputated at the knee. While recovering he decided to learn how to play the guitar and mandolin. Unfortunately, his bad luck continued soon after when an argument over a shotgun sidelined him again after the gun discharged in Riddle’s hand, resulting in him losing the middle and ring fingers of his right hand.

As devastating as that injury likely was at the time, losing those two fingers may have led to Riddle’s success as it forced him to alter his picking techniques since he could only use his thumb, index and little finger on that hand. He developed a unique picking and slide method and became a regular on the African-American music scene where he regularly collaborated with other local musicians like Steve Tarter, Brownie McGhee, Harry Gay, and John Henry Lyons.

Fate intervened in 1927 when Riddle met A.P. Carter, who had founded the Carter Family country band a few years earlier. Riddle soon started splitting his time between Kingsport and the Carter home in Maces Springs, Va., and Riddle and Carter soon embarked on song-collecting trips around the region. It was a partnership that lasted for more than five years but also an incredible friendship that endured for half a century.

Riddle would spend weeks at a time playing in Mace’s Springs with A.P. and Sara, his wife, and “Mother” Maybelle and Ezra Carter. Those sessions resulted in the Carter’s learning Riddle’s favorite blues and gospel songs like as “The Cannon Ball,” “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome,” and “Let the Church Roll On.”

Just how good was Riddle? “Mother” Maybelle credited him with teaching her the “bottleneck” style of guitar picking, known now as the famous “Carter Scratch,” in which the index finger plays the melody while the thumb keeps the rhythm on the bass strings.

In 1942, Riddle and his wife moved to Rochester, N.Y., losing touch with both the Carter Family and music. After meeting Mike Seeger, who had collaborated with “Mother” Maybelle, in the mid-1960’s, however, Riddle began performing again after his wife died in 1976. Over the next 13 years, Riddle and Seeger would make a series of studio recordings with Riddle appearing at the Smithsonian Folk Festival and the Mariposa Folk Festival, as well as the Carter Family Fold, before he passed away in Asheville, N.C., in 1979.

Seeger refused to allow Riddle to be forgotten though. Years later, in 1993, he released “Step By Step: Lesley Riddle Meets The Carter Family: Blues, Country & Sacred Songs. And in 2009 a stage production about Riddle’s life, which included his time and influence on the Carter Family, premiered at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville, N.C. The show, “Esley: The Life and Music of Lesley Riddle,”  featured biographical details of his life, plus versions of songs as he played them (The Carters called him Esley because some of the family’s smaller children couldn’t pronounce Lesley).

Although he was an extremely talented musician, Riddle surprisingly, and sadly, never made a living at it. The former shine boy, presser and school crossing guard, however, left his indelible mark on the Carter Family, country music, and Kingsport.