Appalachian history buffs and music lovers, don’t miss this one

Catch the last weekend of the world premiere musical documentary Esley: The Life and Musical Legacy of Leslie Riddle. Riddle was an African-American Burnsville native who traveled with A.P. Carter of the Carter Family, searching out traditional mountain music and digging the roots of country music.

Parkway Playhouse is honoring Burnsville native Lesley “Esley” Riddle with the world premiere of a show that honors his life and the influence of his musical styles, written by WNC playwright and actor Jeff Douglas Messer. The dish, per the show’s release:

“In the late 1920s, when the soon-to-be legendary Carter Family Singers were just beginning their musical careers, A..P Carter met Esley in Kingsport, Tenn. The two men – despite the racial intolerence of the time – formed a strong friendship and musical collaboration. This collaboration led to fame for the Carters and the reputation for being the “first family” of country music. Mother Maybelle Carter even learned her revolutionary (at the time) bottleneck style of guitar playing from Esley. He helped the Carters to discover new music and new ways of performing, which helped catapult them to the legendary status they hold still to this day. His contributions went largely uncredited, and he eventually moved away from the area and even gave up music. It was only discovered (almost accidentally) in the 1960s (after desegregation) when Mother Maybelle Carter mentioned the influence of Esley to musician and musical historian Mike Seeger. Seeger sought out Esley, interviewed him and made the only recordings of Esley.

Messer is a well-recognized regional actor and playwright whose last script – the political thriller This War is Live premiered in Charleston in 2008 and ran as part of the Picolo Spoleto Festival. He is also the co-author and director of the ground and record breaking blockbuster production of Robin Hood, The Legend of Sherwood at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville. Messer was approached in 2008 by Parkway Playhouse managing artistic director Andrew Gall and commissioned to write the script. The project earned a Blue Ridge Heritage grant.

The play tells the story of the meeting between Esley and A.P. Carter, and follows the jounrey they take together. The production is filled with music from the Carter repertoire, but with new twists, as the origins of Esley’s influence on those songs is explored. The show is not a traditional, straightforward piece of musical theatre, but more of a Behind the Music/Storytellers (to borrow from the VH1 formula) type of show.

Act One tells the story and shows the evolution of the music, more of a raw and organic look at the craftsmanship of the songs. Act Two presents many of those rougher, grittier versions as a more polished Carter Family radio broadcast concert. The show offers a unique perspective on how the music was shaped and changed from its grassroots beginnings to its commercial finished product.

Additionally, the script tackles issues of the racial divide, and how atypical it was for a southern white man like Carter to befriend Esley, and even defend him in the face of racial tensions.”

Esley runs through August 8, with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $22, with discounts for to students, senior citizens, active military, families with two or more children, and groups of ten or more. For reservations, call 828-682-4285 between 1 and 5 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, or visit the Parkway Playhouse Web site at 


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4 thoughts on “Appalachian history buffs and music lovers, don’t miss this one

  1. Bill Milestone

    Rebecca, this sounds wonderful! I love traditional mountain music and the Carter Family. And it is cool that a black gentleman was involved with finding music and affecting the Carter style. Is there a chance this play will come down to Asheville? Perhaps to ACT?

  2. Rebecca Sulock

    Hi Bill…it does sound good, I think. I haven’t heard of plans to bring the play to Asheville, but I’ll look into it.

  3. upstage

    No plans are in place to bring it to Asheville as of yet. There may be discussions as to the next step for the script itself, if not this very production. The script is being published in the coming weeks, so there are many things happening. I encourage anyone who is interested head to Burnsville to catch one of the final performances of the premiere production. THere’s a real energy in this one, as it is playing in the hometown of Riddle and the show has more of a “event” feeling than just another show. And it is a short drive to get there, in a beautiful town.

  4. skiplunch

    A really wonderful performance by Jim Arrendahl as Leslie Riddle and some seamless staging by director Michael Lilly made this the best play I saw this past summer. Excellent musicians and beautiful voices from the rest of the cast produced a standing ovation before the lights went down on the night I attended the show.

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