Primitive Quartet Celebrates 50 Years in Gospel Music



Grace Phillips

For The Beacon


   Forty-nine years ago two sets of brothers, Reagan & Larry and Riddle and Furman and Norman Wilson, decided to go on a fishing trip, this turned out to be no ordinary fishing trip, it was once that shaped all their futures. They took their fishing gear but also something a little unusual…a mandolin and a guitar.  Sitting around the camp at night they realized they could sing in four-part harmony.  Their parents encouraged them to sing at their church the next Sunday.  Little did they realize this was the beginning of something very special that has been a blessing to tens of thousands over almost half a century. 

   The group was known then as the Riddle-Wilson Quartet.  By 1978 the group had become quite popular and went on the road full time; they became known as the Primitive Quartet.  The popularity of the group grew beyond any of their imaginations. Reagan Riddle said, “we were just normal people…we didn’t think we were special in any way…that’s the thing that amazed us. We just wanted to see people blessed and lead souls to Jesus.”  However, they were unique and in today’s modern music world they are extremely unique. They sing accompanied by acoustical instruments including the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitars, and acoustic bass.  As technology developed so many groups began to use studio musicians and bells and whistles in their recordings.  All the while the Primitive Quartet stayed true to their roots.  They still play the instruments on their own recording in order to duplicate the same sound as in their personal appearances.

   There have been very few changes in personnel through the years.  After five years, Furman Wilson felt he was called to preach and chose not to travel once the group went full time.  At that time Reagan and Larry’s brother joined the group.  In 1986, Randy Fox joined the group with his talents as a musician as well as vocals.  The final addition was in 1997 with Jeff Tolbert, who plays the mandolin and bass and adds vocals.  

   Heartbreak came to the Primitives on October 15, 2014.  While bear hunting in the woods with a group of friends in North Carolina, Norman Wilson died from an apparent heart attack at the age of 70.  It seemed almost ironic that the Primitive quartet was formed while on a fishing trip together in the outdoors and God called Norman to the eternal home he has sung about for so many years while in the woods with a group of friends.  

   Each year the group travels approximately 50,000 miles and does about 150 concerts. When asked what the craziest thing was he could remember about their travels, Reagan recounted a story from one of the early years.  “We were scheduled to sing at a church and was running late. We thought it was just a monthly singing. There was always a number of groups to sing and we thought this was just one of those sings and it wouldn’t matter that we were late.  When the bus pulled in we saw all these people out in the church yard and we could hear them yelling...  they’re here, they’re here!  We had no idea, but we were the only group scheduled to sing.” He went on to say the pastor said they had waited a while and decided to have prayer and go home.  They all went bank in and we had church.  “we couldn’t imagine that many people coming to hear just us sing.”  

   “That’s what has always made the Primitives so special,” says Ellen Keaton.  “I have worked with these guys for about 30 years now, first with my job at WTSF TV and then as the president of the Boyd County Fair.  The have always treated everyone they meet as if they have known them all their lives….they still don’t fully realize how special they are to everyone.”  

   On April 24, 2022 the group made a special announcement via Facebook.  In a prepared statement Larry Riddle made this announcement,  “April of this year marks the 49th year of full time travel for the Primitive Quartet.  It is has been our privilege to sing for our Lord and Savior all these years. We have always wanted to finish this race well, therefore we are announcing we will be singing one more year full time travel, making us fifty years of traveling.”  He went on to thank their many friends, new and old for their love and support through all the years.  

   For this article I asked Reagan what his plans were for the future once next April arrived.  He replied, “oh I plan to keep on singing, just not full time.”  He even talked about perhaps mentoring a new group of young musicians with the same desire their group had from the beginning to carry on the music that is loved by so many.  

   When asked if he had a final comment he said, “after 50 years of ministry and 55 recordings, my prayer is for the songs.  I pray that the songs are blessing for years to come and that they live on forever.”  

   The quartet is already scheduled for a final concert at the Paramount Arts Center in the spring of next year.  It is sure to be a sellout concert.  You can follow the Primitives on Facebook to see their personal appearances for their final year.