N.C. Highway Historical Marker Honors African American County Music Innovator


The "First Family of Country Music" A.P. Carter, his wife Sarah and sister Maybelle learned a lot from Lesley Riddle, an African American musician born in Burnsville in 1905. He will be recognized with a N.C. Highway Historical Marker to be dedicated at RiddleFest July 3, 8:30 p.m., at the Mountain Heritage Center, Burnsville. Eventually it will stand on U.S. Highway 19 near Main Street in Burnsville.

Riddle moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, at age eight when his mother relocated. He lost his right leg in an accident at a cement plant in his mid-teens. While recuperating he took up guitar, but later in a dispute over a shotgun lost his middle and ring finger. As with other artists, the disability led the musician to develop his own technique.

In Kingsport Riddle played regularly with musicians that included Blind Lemon Jefferson and Durham's own Brownie McGhee at the home of John Henry Lyons. In the late 1920s Alvin Pleasance Carter visited the Lyons home and struck up a friendship with Riddle. Subsequently they traveled together widely collecting songs. The Carter family were key figures in the Bristol music sessions in late 1927. Riddle visited them often and taught them songs such as "The Cannonball Blues" and others that became part of the Carter family repertoire.

In 1930 Riddle wrote "Lonesome for You" for the Carters, giving up the rights in exchange for an artificial leg to replace his wooden leg. "Mother Maybelle" credited Riddle with teaching her the "Carter Scratch," a technique later adopted by Chet Atkins and Doc Watson. Largely owing to Jim Crow laws of the day, Riddle never recorded or appeared onstage with the Carters.

Riddle married and moved to Rochester, N.Y. in 1937, forsaking the music business. During the folk revival of the 1960s, Maybelle Carter told to 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 Washington, D.C. at a Smithsonian festival.

Riddle moved back to North Carolina and died of lung cancer in Asheville in 1979. A stage production based on his life and music in 2008 premiered at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.

For additional information about the dedication please call (828) 682-9654. For additional information about the N.C. Historical Highway Marker program call (919) 807-7290. The N.C. Historical Highway Marker program is a collaboration between the N.C. Departments of Cultural Resources and Transportation.

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