Nearing the end of its traveling ministry, beloved group still has a song
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
ASHLAND, Ky. – I will admit, I was choked up more than once as I watched and listened to Primitive Quartet in concert on April 1.
My friend, Paul Belcher, who was promoting the concert at the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, had invited my wife, Stephanie, and me to watch these legendary gospel singers from backstage. It was an experience I will never forget as those three hours allowed me to observe Primitive Quartet up close and personal in a way I never had before. And in my final Primitive Quartet concert, I was reminded in a different way why these men are so beloved.
Larry and Reagan Riddle have been singing together since they and a couple of friends went on that now-famous fishing trip in 1973. A few years later, The Inspirations’ Martin Cook booked Primitive Quartet to travel with his group, which was at the top of gospel music at the time.
The Riddles’ brother, Mike, a talented flat-picking guitarist, came aboard. Randy Fox joined a few years later while the new guy, Jeff Tolbert, brought his mandolin, banjo and fiddle to the group 27 years ago.
Backstage, I saw Primitive quietly get ready for their part of the night while Gold City opened the concert. Just a prayer, making some last-minute tuning adjustments then a low-key introduction to a crowd ready to worship.
On stage, Primitive worshiped. In the audience, people stood. Some looked toward Heaven. Others raised their hands. It was simply worship.
It’s who Primitive Quartet was in 1973 and it’s who Primitive Quartet is in 2023, just a few weeks before going off the road.
“That’s what we need to do,” Reagan Riddle said a few minutes after Primitive’s part of the program ended. “The spotlight doesn’t need to be on us. It needs to be on the One we serve, the Lord Jesus, the One that died for us.”
That’s why Primitive Quartet is so beloved. A check of The Singing News Fan Awards over the years shows the group has won only one, the Templeton/Norcross Award in 2010. It’s was an award to recognize artists who “provided distinctive service to Southern Gospel Music” according to sghistory.com.
The weekend of March 31 and April 1, Primitive appeared in West Virginia on Friday, then at Ashland on Saturday. The quartet had visitors on its bus, their longtime friends, The Inspirations.
“That was God working,” Inspirations bass Wyatt Austin said. “Our Sprinter went out a couple of weeks ago. We looked at our schedule and saw we were going to be singing with them all weekend, so we hopped on their bus.”
It had to be crowded.
“Actually, it was great,” Austin grinned. “They have nine bunks.”
Which, of course, is the total number of singers in the groups combined.
It was not the first time the groups had traveled in the same bus. When Cook heard Primitive and gave the group its break, everyone piled on The Inspirations’ bus. The groups have performed together extensively over the last few years. In fact, Austin said that the Inspirations hopped on the Primitive Quartet’s bus for a trip to America’s Heartland in 2020.
“One of our first big singings was in Lebanon, Mo.,” Austin said. “This was right after we got started – the young guys – and we all got on the bus and rode out there together.”
Austin said the groups are scheduled to sing together one more time at the National Quartet Convention Spring Break in Pigeon Forge next week.
The Primitive Quartet’s final concert is scheduled for May 20 at the Lakeway Performing Arts Center in White Pine, Tenn. According to the Center’s Facebook page, the concert is sold out.
Reagan Riddle says, however, that the group will still be praising the Lord whenever possible. “We are not going to quit singing completely,” he said. “We are just going to quit traveling a lot. I haven’t lost my song. I am still going to sing. Wherever the Lord leads, I am just going to do what’s pleasing to Him.”
As Primitive Quartet closed its segment of the concert with, “My Hope Is In the Blood,” it was obvious the lyrics were not just a performance but a lifestyle. The notes were perfect. The words were annunciated with perfection.
And the tears flowing were real. The crowd’s. The quartet’s. And mine.
It was pure worship.
Well, done Primitive Quartet.
Coming soon: Primitive Quartet’s Jeff Tolbert, who does not plan to retire in May, talks about his future.