A Touch of Heaven Touching People for 50 years

Primitive Quartet at Sand Spring Baptist Church on September 23. From left are Reagan Riddle, Randy Fox, Jeff Tolbert, Mike Riddle and Larry Riddle.

Primitive Quartet in final months of amazing ministry, still giving God all the praise

By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com

LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. – Little did some fishing buddies know that a springtime camping trip would be the beginning of a career that has been reeling in accolades from almost every corner of the gospel music industry.

But that’s how God has worked through Primitive Quartet ever since April 1973. 

The Primitives have cast their influence through a true-to-their-roots music and a faithful-to-their-Savior faith that has led them to touch more people than could have ever been imagined when the Riddle brothers and Wilson brothers were sitting around a campfire picking and singing.

Reagan Riddle plays rhythm guitar during Primitive Quartet’s concert at Sand Spring Baptist Church on Sept. 23. He is one of the quartet’s founding members.

We caught up with Primitive Quartet when they and The Inspirations delivered a spirit-filled night of music at Sand Spring Baptist Church on Sept. 23.

“How long have you got?” Inspirations lead singer Roland Kesterson chuckled when asked what the Primitive Quartet had taught him. “They have always been my heroes. They have taught me in a lot of ways. They are real.”

Chances are you would get similar answers from across gospel music. You’d hear that word, “real” many times. You’d likely hear words like “integrity” and “humility.” And probably you’d hear the word “faithful” used to describe Primitive Quartet.

And there’s a certain sadness mixed with the celebration of 50 years as Primitive Quartet announced earlier this year that it would be coming off the road next April.

“It’s been a joy. It’s been a joy we never thought about. We never planned any of this,” says Larry Riddle, who along with his older brother, Reagan, went on that now-famous fishing trip with Norman and Furman Wilson. They came home with quite a few fish and the idea to sing at churches near their home in Candler, N.C.

“We were just going to sing around a little but God opened the doors,” Larry remembers. 

Now, just a few months short of that announced retirement from the road, Primitive Quartet’s impact is more than just that pure sound of mountain music.The group’s true legacy will be the joy that comes from truly knowing Jesus.

Larry Riddle, one of the founding members of Primitive Quartet. (All photos by John & Stephanie Herndon)

“We are sinners that He saved,” Larry Riddle says. “I had very little to do with that. I just believed and He did what He said He would.”

And that’s what Primitive wants all to remember after every song and every concert. And it is what the group wants people to remember when the bus pulls into Candler for that final time. 

“Our goal is to leave a lasting mark,” says Randy Fox, who joined Primitive in 1986 to sing and play bass fiddle. “You know, a quartet that loves the Lord. A quartet that has been faithful to the work He’s given us to do. That has been on my heart about the retirement issue the whole time. You know there just comes a time when it’s time. I have peace about that. On my heart is to leave in a positive way and leave a good legacy in some way that people say, ‘They love the Lord and they have been faithful in His service.’”

Jeff Tolbert, who has been playing mandolin and banjo with Primitive for 27 (his count) or 25 (Fox’s count) years, recalls growing up on Primitive’s music as a young teen in his hometown of Mt. Airy, N.C. He finally met his heroes when his father took him to a concert in southern Virginia. 

Jeff Tolbert plays mandolin, banjo and fiddle for Primitive Quartet, which was one of his favorite groups growing up. He’s been with Primitive for over 25 years.

“A lady had bought an LP album and brought it back and said it didn’t work,” Tolbert smiles. “I remember Mike (Riddle) taking out a pen and writing ‘Bad’ on it and tossing it in a trash can. I went and pulled that record out of the trash can and took it home. It worked fine. I took that album home and as a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old I remember sitting on the end of my bed and taking the fiddle or a guitar out and playing along.”

Little did Tolbert know he would be an integral member of the group during the last half of its traveling ministry. After traveling with Jeff & Sheri Easter, The Isaacs and Ricky Skaggs, he became part of Primitive in the mid-1990s. 

“Jeff started going with us. I don’t think we ever hired him! He just started coming and we never could get rid of him!” Fox laughs. “He’s a 25-year veteran. I guess we need to get him a watch.”

Tolbert smiles and simply explains, “Everything just fell into place.”

Which could be a description of a ministry that will be coming to a close next spring. 

“When they went on that little fishing/camping trip back in 1973, I think they ended up singing more than anything else,” Fox says. “They would go fishing in the day and then sing around the campfire at night. When they came back home, they sang at a few churches. It just started and things happened from there.”

A few years into the quartet’s ministry, Furman Wilson left to focus solely on the church he served as pastor. Mike Riddle, an accomplished guitarist and the younger brother of Reagan and Larry Riddle, stepped in. Then came the break that transformed the Primitives from a regional group being heard in western North Carolina into a beloved national artist.

Randy Fox joined Primitive Quartet in 1986. Two years later, he married quartet founder Reagan Riddle’s daughter.

“I think it was in 1977 they sang with The Inspirations,” Fox says. “They had a singing for flood victims over in Candler, N.C., and The Inspirations were on that and heard the Primitive Quartet. The Inspirations invited them to travel with them. It ended up being an 18-month tour. They all traveled on the same bus for 18 months. There were four from Primitive and, I think, about nine Inspirations all on that one bus, so that was quite a sacrifice The Inspirations made. 

“(The Primitives) never thought of doing this full time. They were carpenters by trade as far as making a living but The Inspirations introduced Primitive Quartet around the nation and it just happened.”

And when members of Primitive Quartet talk about something “just happening,” it is readily apparent, they mean that God directed things.

For example, in 1986, when Fox came aboard, the Indiana native only had his eyes on singing and playing music. “Then two years later, I ended up marrying Reagan’s daughter,” he says with a big smile. “We have two children and I love it. I have had 36 years in this ministry and I still love it. God has given so much joy in this ministry.”

The group has remained constant since Tolbert came aboard about a decade later. The only change came on Southern Gospel Hall of Fame member Norman Wilson passed away in 2014. He was not replaced. 

Throughout its ministry, Primitive Quartet’s music has reflected the individual members’ humility, joy and simple personalities. 

Mike Riddle is considered one of the best guitar pickers in gospel music.

“I have always thought – and a dear friend told me this years ago – that simplicity is the purest form of music,” Fox says. “If you get it too complicated, people can’t understand it. I am speaking of the melody. The melody can get so complicated that people can’t follow it. I am in awe of what some people can do musically, but it comes back to simplicity. Can you get the message across. A preacher told me that you present the gospel so that a child can understand it.”

For almost 50 years, Primitive Quartet has been doing just that, but people of all ages have been blessed by their music. The decision to come off the road was not an easy one.

“I think I was like everybody else,” The Inspirations’ Kesterson says of when he learned of Primitive’s retirement. “I was sad, but understand. They have been out 50 years and have earned that time at home. They are real. I think that is why they have been so successful. They are real both on-stage and off-stage.”

Tolbert seems amazed by the group’s ministry. “You realize there’s a season for everybody and for 50 years, God has blessed our quartet,” he says. “They had never really intended on doing this as a full-time ministry but God just opened up doors and everything just kind of fell into place. He made that happen and I am grateful that through the years, God has blessed this group. God has touched a lot of people through this group.

Primitive Quartet and The Inspirations often work together. Mike Riddle and Jeff Tolbert pick with The Inspirations’ Lucas Vaught during the concert at Sand Spring Baptist Church.

“And I realize too that you travel 50 years away from our wives. We couldn’t do what we do without our wives and without our families’ support. So it’s time to, you know. Larry wants to be with his grandkids and family life. I will slow down a little bit. I am still praying about that and praying for the Lord’s direction.”

That direction is what has driven Primitive Quartet since 1973.

“You don’t have to be the greatest preacher. You don’t have to be the greatest singer,” Larry Riddle says. “You just have to have the touch of heaven on it, brother. I enjoy the spirit of the Lord being here. We are not the greatest singers. We never have been, but we strive to keep the touch of heaven on what we do. 

“God has just blessed us. We just sing praise to His holy name. That’s all we do.”

Reagan Riddle (left) and The Inspirations’ Roland Kesterson sing at Sand Spring Baptist Church. Kesterson says the reason for Primitive’s success is “They are real.”

What’s in store for Primitive Quartet?

Primitive Quartet plans to continue a full schedule through April 2023 and then have a final farewell concert. “We are working on a Saturday night in May to be our Farewell Concert. We are working on the details on that,” Fox says.

Tolbert has several options but says what he will definitely be doing “is the million-dollar question.” He’s already in demand as a studio musician and has some other ministry opportunities, possibly some with his son, Briley, who is already preaching at 17 years of age. Jeff and his family are also very active in his church in Candler, N.C.

The other four members of Primitive Quartet plan to retire and continue serving in their home church, Maple Ridge Baptist of Candler, as they have been. “Randy is our choir director,” Larry Riddle says. “I am the chairman of the deacons board. Mike plays the organ and Reagan is a deacon but he has stepped aside for now.”

As for the quartet, they still plan on singing occasionally in the area near their homes.

Why Primitive? And why quartet?

Primitive Quartet might have one of the most unusual names in gospel music. We asked Randy Fox why the group decided on the name.

“That was Norman Wilson’s idea,” he said. “He came up with the name. He said we were going to do things the old-time way. That was it. A lot of people thought we were affiliated with the Primitive Baptist church but that was not it. It was just saying we do things the old-time way.”

For most of the group’s ministry, it has had more than four members – the number has been five since 2014 – and all sing at one time or another, making quartet seem to be a misnomer. Fox smiled when asked.

“We just sing four at a time,” he said, although all five could be seen singing on a few songs during the concert. “A lot of quartets have a piano player. They have five, but they are still a quartet.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Jeff Tolbert’s son is preaching but is not a church pastor at the time of this writing.

Primitive Quartet and The Inspirations sing together for the final segment of their concert at Sand Spring. From left are Reagan Riddle, Randy Fox, Roland Kesterson, Wyatt Austin, Mike Riddle, Jeff Tolbert, Lucas Vaught, Larry Riddle and Isaac Moore.

6 thoughts on “A Touch of Heaven Touching People for 50 years

  1. I will be posting this. Great job!

    Les Butler 615-218-0517 Butler Music Group/Family Music Group REAL Southern Gospel AG Publicity Les Butler and Friends Old Time Preachers


  2. I love this group. I,ve got several other favorites but this group is my very very best. They sing from the heart and I always feel like I can touch a piece of heaven when they sing.


  3. The Primitives are the real deal. Thank God for this group of men that follow God’s calling on their lives. I thank God and The Primitive Quartet for so many times of feeling the Master’s tug during signings. They have been a tremendous blessing to so many.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s