Writing Esley: Blog Post by Jeff Messer


As a writer, and all around theatre person, you learn early to say yes to pretty much any offer. When Andrew Gall approached me about writing a show for Parkway in 2009, I said yes before even knowing anything about what that show would be. It turned out to be a grand tale of a long-lost local hero of Burnsville. That’s well enough. But when that local hero turned out to be a former collaborator of the Carter Family, I was a bit more intrigued. I wasn’t a huge fan of old time music, mind you, but the idea of an unsung hero makes for good storytelling. Then the final hook came: Lesley Riddle was a black man, living in the South in the 20s and 30s, who traveled with the Carters and helped them find some of their biggest songs. Now, that was a story worth digging into.

Picture from Parkway Playhouse’s 2009 production of Esley: The Life and Musical Legacy of Lesley Riddle

The first title I started working with, for the show, was “One Leg, Eight Fingers, and a Guitar,” after a Brownie McGhee quote I found among the research. It was an apt description of Riddle, who was missing his right leg below the knee, and his two middle fingers on his right hand, which created a decidedly different sound when playing the guitar. And, that simple fact, helped to fill in the gaps as to how Mother Maybelle Carter played the way she played. She learned most of her playing from Riddle.

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Thanks to the UNC library, I got around 12 hours of audio recordings of interviews and performances that Mike Seeger had conducted back in the 1960s, after he discovered the truth of Riddle’s contributions to modern music. Those recordings contained some amazing versions of songs, that I had never heard before. It was inspiring to hear something like “Good Morning Little School Girl” as played by Riddle, in a form that was much rawer than the many later versions that graced albums by the likes of The Rolling Stones and Huey Lewis and the News.

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After hearing all the interviews and reading all the available info on Riddle and the Carters, I set about crafting the play. The music, as it was originally played by Riddle, had a rougher, bluesier edge to it, while the Carter versions were more radio friendly, and Country-fied. I decided to play against the two styles. The first act would be more about the unrefined process of finding, crafting and recording the songs. The second act would show the Carters performing live on the radio, with the songs in their final, and more recognizable form.

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The tale was a long and somewhat complicated one, as it spanned 40 years of Esley’s life, and to tell it all in a traditional dialogue driven show didn’t feel right. And it wasn’t a typical musical. It was a story about lives of people who performed music. So, I took a page or two out of the VH1 playbook via the 1990s. It was part, “Storytellers” and part “Behind the Music.”

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Act one would take the audience through things in a fairly linear fashion, with the tale of The Carters meeting Esley, and how their career evolved with him in their lives personally and professionally. It would also show the harshness of the racial divide that still existed. There was something unique about the way a white family in the South embraced a black man, and made him a part of their family, entrusting him with their lives, careers and struggles.

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Act two picks up almost 30 years later, with Esley having been found. Intercut with the final Carter Family radio concert, as the original line up, and the living room of Esley in Rochester, NY, the rest of the story is filled in as part of the interviews with an older Esley. Much of which, came verbatim from the Mike Seeger interview sessions.

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An Interviewer, who somewhat represents Seeger, is seen throughout Act One, as he follows the tales of the past, tracking down Esley. And in Act two, he has tracked him down. Having such a character is a huge part of the show, since telling it all through dialogue would have made the show twice as long. Instead, it uses multiple theatrical styles to tell the story. The show is very much a hybrid of theatre styles in the form of a music bio play with a live concert squeezed in the middle of it.

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Photo of director Michael Lilly during a Esley rehearsal. Photo by Rob Storrs. Copyright 2015 Rob Storrs

Having Michael Lilly direct it back in 2009, was an inspired choice. He had worked at Parkway back in the 1970s, as a college student, and Esley was his return to the theatre after 30 decades.

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The original cast were mostly actors, and not musicians, but this time Michael was insistent that we find a cast that could play the show live, as well as play the roles on stage. We were lucky to find Ash and Saro for the Carters, and things just fell into place from there. Michael and I drove to South Carolina one Sunday in March to meet with Jay. We sat at an outdoor cafe, and listened as Jay auditioned for us by playing a fairly complex song by Dave Matthews. And, after a short chat, we felt like we had found our Esley. I don’t think we could have asked for better actors to play AP Carter and Ralph Peer than Dalton Woody and Doug Shaw, both of whom are doing the finest work I’ve seen them do. Of course, having Ron and Minnie Powell back was a no-brainer. They were part of the very glue of this show from the beginning. In fact, it had become a regular thing for Ron to come up to me summer after summer following the 2009 production, asking “when are we getting the band back together?” One of the happier moments for me was showing up for the first rehearsal of this production, and being able to say to him, “We did it. We got the band back together.”

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It is interesting to have done the show originally in 2009, after the election of our first black President in America, since the story is very much about the success against the odds. Doing it 6 years later, and after a few weeks of major news about racial tensions in the South still being a major hurtle in this country, I can’t help but be proud that the show is an example of defying racial divides and looking beyond such petty things and finding a deeper understanding of humanity’s potential to rise above.

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Parkway Playhouse, located in the Appalachian town of Burnsville, NC, is a haven of theatre talent. While people come to the mountains to get away, Parkway Playhouse is a natural gathering place to connect. Likewise, we are an extension of traditional mountain talents: singing, dancing, and, foremost, storytelling. By giving rise to energetic new voices and through a wide variety of plays and musicals, we invite our audience into experiences that are thought-provoking, adventurous, and entertaining. Together we reimagine the world in every live performance, creating dynamic conversations that last far beyond the curtain call. This blog is will feature stories, helpful information, insight and features about the performances.

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