Lesley “Esley” Riddle was born in 1905 in Burnsville and lived in Kingsport, Tenn., as a young man. It was there, in 1928, that he met budding musician A.P. Carter. It was not only the beginning of The Carter Family’s career as recording artists — they’d go on to become country music royalty — it was the beginning of the recording and broadcast industries. Riddle helped Carter gain access to rural musicians and storytellers who shared their songs. Riddle would work out the music on guitar, and Carter would write down the words.
Still, no one knew much about Riddle either before or after the Carter family became a household name. Riddle was a black man traveling with a white man in the Jim Crow-era South. Once, in a small cafe in Georgia, when the owners refused to serve Riddle, Carter declared that they would not be serving him as well. That story and others were uncovered by folk musician and folklorist Mike Seeger in the mid-’60s.
“Mother” Maybelle Carter told Seeger in an interview that she learned much of her legendary guitar style from Riddle. Her admission made sense: Riddle had lost two fingers on his picking hand in a gun accident in his youth (he was also missing his right leg from the knee down). The missing fingers caused him to adjust his playing style, and Maybelle adopted that technique as Riddle taught her songs.
Seeger sought Riddle out, and together they made a number of recordings over several years, documenting Riddle’s life with the Carter Family, as well as the origins of many of the songs for which the country artists were famous. The songs Riddle played for Seeger were familiar, but more raw, more bluesy and less refined than the versions the Carters recorded.
Desegregation allowed Riddle’s place in music to come to light. Among the discoveries was how Riddle lived with the Carters over periods of time, even helping to raise their children when A.P. and his wife, Sarah, divorced. The children credited Riddle with their very survival as their father became distant and despondent.
When Riddle died in Asheville, in 1980, he had finally achieved some degree of recognition for his contributions to the origins of country music. Efforts are ongoing to give him formal recognition within the Country Music Hall of Fame and official circles. His legacy lives on in Burnsville, where he still has family and a loyal base of fans. In 2009, this writer penned Esley, a stage play based on Riddle’s life, which premiered at Parkway Playhouse and was reprised in 2015.