How Black Musicians Helped Shape Early Country Music

by Clayton Edwards

In a previous article, I talked about Hillbilly Music, the Appalachian predecessor to modern country music. This music, notably captured during the Bristol Sessions was the result of decades of blending and sharing of culture. Black and white musicians found common ground in their musical traditions. As a result, those traditions began to blend. Before long, it was hard to tell which aspects of the music came from which culture. By the time Ralph Peer set up his recording equipment in Bristol, it was no longer “Black music” or “white music.” Instead, it was wholly American and distinctly Appalachian.

Over the years, history has forgotten the names of many of the Black musicians who helped shape early country music. However, it is clear that their influence is there. Luckily, some of those Black musicians were able to indelibly write their names in the history of country music.

The Black Musicians Who Helped Shape Country Music

Recently, I spoke to award-winning educator and historian Dr. Ted Olson. Dr. Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies as well as Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies at East Tennessee University. He was able to share the stories of some Black musicians that helped to shape country music.

Lesley Riddle

Lesley Riddle was a Black musician who helped shape the face of modern country music through his collaborations with the Carter Family.

Today, many fans and critics hail the Carter Family as the First Family of Country Music. However, they wouldn’t have been the musical force they were without Lesley Riddle. Dr. Olson gave a brief overview of Riddle’s life and what led him to work with the Carters.

“Lesley Riddle was an African American who was born in Burnsville, North Carolina, close to the Tennessee border. Then, at some point in the late 20s, he moved to Kingsport. There, he had an accident while working at a cement plant. As I heard it, it was a debilitating accident so that he couldn’t work anymore in physical labor. So, being musically talented, he started to play music out on the street. He played with a group of African American musicians who were in Kingsport at the time.”

While playing on the streets of Kingsport, Riddle worked with Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay, who also cut records in Bristol. Brownie McGhee, who would go on to become a respected Piedmont-style blues player rounded out the group.

Lesley Riddle and the Carter Family

Kingsport, Tennessee is right on the Virginia line. More importantly, it was about a twenty-minute drive from Macy’s Spring, where the Carter Family lived. As a result, A.P. Carter heard Lesley Riddle playing with his group in Kingsport. The two met and hit it off. This would begin to cement Riddle’s place in history as one of many Black musicians who helped shape country music.  

“I like to put it that Lesley Riddle contributed to the Carter Family repertoire and provided some alternate finger styles on guitar to Maybelle Carter. He was an under-attributed but enormous influence on the Carter Family,” said Dr. Olson of Riddle’s contributions to the Carters.

Some say that Lesley Riddle taught Mother Maybelle Carter the iconic guitar style known as the Carter Scratch or Carter Style Picking. However, Dr. Olson said that isn’t really the case because he only started working with them after the Bristol Sessions. “It’s likely that he taught Maybelle Carter many licks and certain fingerstyle techniques that she incorporated into her playing. I’m sure he gave her a lot of approval for style. He was a discerning ear and hearing her play, he would’ve encouraged her to keep at it and try new things.”

More importantly, though, Lesley Riddle toured locally around Southwest Virginia with A.P. Carter. They’d go out on song collecting trips in which they would learn pieces from regional musicians. These musicians were both Black and white and sharing their songs with Carter and Riddle helped to shape the Carters’ repertoire as well as country music as a whole.

“A.P. and Lesley got along very well and had complementary talents. A.P. was extremely good at memorizing lyrics and Riddle was excellent at memorizing melodies. So, they worked together to adapt songs from tradition. Alas, based on the segregation of the era, Carter was credited with the composition of those, what were essentially arrangements not full compositions and Lesley Riddle was left out of the attribution angle by the record companies.”

Arnold Schultz

Arnold Schultz is another underappreciated Black musician that helped to shape modern country music. He was integral in the development of what we now call Travis Picking. Artists like Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Doc Watson popularized the playing style. Additionally, Schultz was an accomplished fiddle player.

Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, cited Arnold Schultz as a major influence. More than that, Schultz helped Monroe get his first paid gig as a guitarist long before he formed the Bluegrass Boys and codified a new genre of music. Additionally, Monroe modeled early the early bluegrass vocal style on Black gospel quartets and singing groups.

More Black Musicians Who Helped Shape Country Music

Dr. Olson said that Lesley Riddle and Arnold Schultz weren’t the only Black musicians who helped shape country music and got very little credit. “Hank Williams learned from an African American blues player. That story continues. Jimmie Rodgers certainly learned from African American players. His style was strongly influenced by blues technique and repertoire. Whoever those Black musicians were, they weren’t credited in Jimmie Rodgers’ music either, even though so many of his compositions were titled “blues” or “blue yodel” and things like that.  Rodgers was pretty overt that his music was influenced by Black musicians.

Why Did Black Musicians Go Uncredited?

In the case of the Carter Family and Leslie Riddle, Dr. Olson said, “The record companies, as the ones publishing the materials, increased or extended the cultural segregation by not giving credit to one of the contributing sources of the music which was Lesley Riddle in the case of the Carter Family. That continued on and on.”

Overall, he said, “The contributing forces to early country music also contributed to the myth that somehow this music was from a white cultural source as opposed to coming from different cultural groups with equal contributions.”

Today, this myth is slowly dying. Researchers are digging deeper into America’s musical history and seeing more and more that American music wasn’t the invention of a handful of talented white people but a collaborative effort from a diverse group of artists who found common ground in the music they created.