This month, the Burnsville community honors the legacy of a native son whose talented ear shaped the sound of country music.
Griffith Chapel is small, located on a short street just blocks away from the Burnsville town square. But the amount of passion and faith contained inside seems as large as the surrounding mountains. Bluesy, jazzy, rich voices from the gospel choir and the percussion of clapping hands swell the tiny structure. Music is important to this church and its members. And each February, they gather to celebrate one of their ancestors who loved those old-timey tunes more than anyone else — Lesley Riddle.
Born to poverty just outside of Burnsville in 1905, misfortune plagued Riddle throughout his childhood. As a teen, he stepped into an in-ground auger at the local cement plant and suffered a wound that led to the amputation of his lower right leg. Not long after, he lost his right middle and ring fingers in an argument about a shotgun. The first accident provided him with time to practice guitar as he recuperated; the second led to his original picking style, which later inspired Maybelle Carter’s famous “Carter Scratch” guitar lick. (She also borrowed Riddle’s habit of using a pocketknife as a guitar slide.)
Riddle met country music pioneer A.P. Carter in 1927 after Riddle moved to Tennessee to find work. At the time, Riddle played mostly unrecorded variations of traditional mountain music that he heard in cabins and small churches. He impressed Carter, so Carter took Riddle along on his song-catching expeditions in the Appalachians. Carter wrote down the lyrics, and Riddle memorized the melody, which he reconstructed once they returned home. The pair gained access to lyrics and melodies that were later published under the Carter name, which slighted Riddle of the enormous fame Carter gained.
In the mid-1960s, Grammy winner and Smithsonian Folkways Director Mike Seeger rediscovered Riddle in Rochester, New York, and spent the next 15 years interviewing him and recording his music, releasing Step by Step: Lesley Riddle Meets the Carter Family in 1993. It concerned Seeger that Riddle’s talent and story remained largely unknown.
Riddle’s untold story also caught the attention of lithographer John Doyle, who helped start the nonprofit Traditional Voices Group, dedicated to documenting and preserving the Toe River area’s cultural and musical heritage. Doyle rallied the community around the creation of the Yancey County Mountain Heritage Center, which includes a recording studio dedicated in Riddle’s name.
In 2008, local and national talent, including the Griffith Chapel Choir, came together to record a tribute CD, Riddle Me a Song. The CD debuted at the first RiddleFest concert that February. Seeger drove from his home in northern Virginia to play at the concert for free. The second RiddleFest in 2009, called the Water Tank Jam, paid tribute to Riddle’s frequent gatherings with musicians under the Burnsville water tank. Attendees watched a theatrical preview of the new Parkway Playhouse musical based on Riddle’s life. But some, including Doyle, began to wonder — with only 12 songs recorded and documented as Riddle’s, what’s the next step for honoring him and continuing to build community relationships?
So last year, the Traditional Voices group, with a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, expanded RiddleFest from an evening musical event to a full day of seminars at the Burnsville Town Center. Attendees enjoyed workshops and performances by the faculty and students of East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass, country, and old-time music program, and learned about shape-note singing and the difficult history of African-American gospel music. The event concluded with a thundering performance by the Appalachian State gospel choir. This year, RiddleFest explores the influence of Piedmont blues on mountain music, an idea born out of local lore that says Riddle received his first guitar from a traveling blues man.
Locals continue to try to get Riddle inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame. And this past summer, the Griffith Chapel Choir took the stage at the Burnsville Town Center to successfully raise enough funds to retire the church mortgage, which means a lot to members of the congregation who always knew Riddle as an average man who loved the old spirituals and mountain tunes, and just wanted a place to share them.
Burnsville Town Center
6 South Main Street
Burnsville, N.C. 28714
Janet Hurley is a freelance writer and founding director of True Ink, which provides creative programming for young writers. She lives in Asheville with her husband and two children.