Link Wray’s Three Track Shack
In the waning days of 1971, a single under the name Mordicai Jones made its way to jukeboxes, radio stations, and record stores. Crisp bridge-picked acoustic guitar strummed out a loose melody, took a brief pause, and was picked up by fuzzed-out electric slide guitar that introduces a minimalist country shuffle. The singer chimes in with a raspy drawl that sounds as if The Marshall Tucker Band’s Toy Caldwell and Doug Gray were combined into one southern rockin’ monovox machine. “Walkin’ In the Arizona Sun” takes us on a pilgrimage from the singer’s obvious southern origins to the open expanses of the desert—fitting the ambling resonance of the arrangement. On the flip side, a gruff snarl is used to get the crowd moving. Cutting over yet another expertly delivered slide riff that gradually gives way to crunchy distorted free picking, “Days Before Custer” shows that the sleepy gang of the first side were capable of rocking with the heaviest of ’em.
Near simultaneously, from a decade in obscurity, the king of guitar rumble himself was back. With a stripped-down sound that could have been a companion to Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Link Wray set stereo amplifiers ablaze with “Fire and Brimstone.” A ferocious bottleneck slide exposé kicks off the piece—rest assured listener, the power chording maestro of primitive rock, he remains, but with more than a few new tricks up his sleeve. Phaser-heavy chords wash over the piece as a backbeaten wallop of percussion sends the whole cacophony into a backwoods romp. Then he sings. Wray had experimented with vocals on some previous recordings but any attempt at a calm serenade had gone the way of fancy studio tricks. This was a WAIL.
Over the course of 1971, as the heavy rock sound that he essentially founded really got into swing, Link Wray was holed up at his Maryland farm. The Wray brothers – Vernon, Link, and Doug – assembled a slipshod recording studio in a shed behind the house and equipped it with a now-vintage 3-track board. Naturally, the legacy of the music recorded that year ran the risk of being overshadowed by the homegrown novelty of the method in which it was recorded. While the details behind the recordings should be considered – they absolutely do contribute to the resulting raw power of the sound – the key takeaway for listeners then and a half-century later is that Wray still had big statements to make and was going to deliver them any way he saw fit.
The tapes from Wray’s Shack 3-Track took the form of three official releases. Two were in Wray’s own name: Link Wray and Beans and Fatback. The third, oddly enough, was under the aforementioned Mordicai Jones. The motivation behind billing Wray’s piano player with an esoteric pseudonym isn’t necessarily clear. Bobby Howard, as mentioned above, had a voice fit for the southern rock circuit, but was by no means leagues above Wray’s own vocal abilities. There have been guesses that it was a further step to rebrand Wray’s music to appeal to varied audiences after his own comeback failed to draw in significant new listeners. But Link Wray and Mordicai Jones were released concurrently. There is also the lesser cited theory that Wray felt Howard deserved more recognition for his vocal and piano work. The rockabilly vamps and pounded chords he pulled from the keys were a crucial feature of the shack recordings, but this was no Ray Charles or Dr. John when assessing overall skill and delivery of the singing pianist. Likely, the reasoning is a combination of things. Wray, in his mid-forties at this time, was not the ideal face of a top-selling rock outfit in the seventies. Further, it may not have made sense for Polydor to release two albums of very similar sounding material under Wray’s name at the time. With the boom in the Southern sound going strong, the label may have seen an opportunity for the Howard-fronted outfit to piggyback on the market successes of The Allmans, Skynyrd, and ZZ Top. Regardless, the release of the Mordicai Jones record gave an excuse for even more Wray-centric material to be released at a time when it was needed most. The early 70s saw plenty of acts going full-pastoral, but the denim-clad, rough and tumble ensemble of the Shack 3-Track sounded like they actually knew how to tend the land from which they channeled their cosmic rusticism.
As a whole, the 1971 recordings reside on the same plane as The Band’s self-titled second LP, Bobby Charles’ eponymous masterpiece, or if we’d like to get deeper into the rural rocker canon: Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time, Dale Hawkins’ comeback attempt L.A., Memphis, and Tyler, Texas or deeper still, The Farm Band’s second and more concise, Up In Your Thing. Coincidentally, Hawkins, Charles, and the boys in The Band (during their days as The Hawks) were hugely influential in Rock and Roll’s first wave, as it travelled out of the south and made its way across the world. On the sidelines for a decade, the cultural return to the folkier, southern roots of the post-psychedelic era provided a chance for the old guys (by pop music standards) to give it another go.
Without the aid of slick production, top-notch studio players, or access to standard recording equipment, the Wray brothers, along with Billy Hodges, Steve Verrocca, and Bobby Howard had to stir up some real magic to get the shack recordings to stand out in a market that was now overrun with arena rockers and the first generation of true singer-songwriter superstars. The music here was somewhere in between. Heavy and grooving, but with sincere heartfelt affect in the words sung. Wray and his group made sure to speak directly to their audience, and things never felt too weighty or self-adulating from a songwriting perspective. As the key influence on so many heavy ensembles of the era it was only fitting that Wray return to reclaim his throne. Lacking the power a John Bonham or Keith Moon could provide, Wray would rely solely on his own six-string command and the intense heaviness of hardship that runs so prominently along the back of American roots music to lift his low wattage assembly to the peaks of sonic assault.
The self-titled record starts off with just that. “There’s gonna be revival tonight!” Wray barks of his own comeback with the opening line. A thumping piano and ramshackle drum kit propel things into a feverish stomp. Twangy guitars round out the sound. At one point Wray shrieks into the void. Its brief and filled with so much emotion that it runs the risk of stopping the show right in its tracks, but the group pushes on, bouncing to the groove of Wray’s woody Phil-Lesh-on-American Beauty bass work. “Take Me Home Jesus” shows a sentimental side of Wray; straining his voice as best he can to relive those childhood days in North Carolina once more. The stomp returns with a vengeance for the good time choogle of “Juke Box Mama.” Slide guitars swirl around adlibs, off-key in just the right way harmonies, and spoken word mumbles. Wray borrows the vocal melody to “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and sets his own heartfelt “Fallin’ Rain” over it. With the sweetest vocal delivery on the record, one almost overlooks the lament on the bloodshed and mental condition of the world at the close of the 1960s.
The previously mentioned “Fire and Brimstone” gets things moving on the flip side, before Wray loosens all inhibitions for the thunderous “God Out West.” Fully distorted guitar seemingly capable of slicing through the tape it was recorded on obstructs a choir of sidemen sounding as if they were recorded from the bottom of well. Wray unleashes a monster of solo that channels his proteges Hendrix, Page, and Clapton as much as his own decibel shattering work a decade earlier. But the fireworks don’t stop there. Following another couple of slow hazy numbers, the bloozey “Crowbar” and “Black River Swamp” (one of the most gorgeous songs ever recorded), Wray takes it back to the first pages of Rock and Roll’s story. Closing out the album is quite possibly the funkiest – and definitely the crunchiest – rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Tail Dragger.” Back to the roots, indeed.
The same down-home energy is immediately apparent on Mordicai Jones. The album may be billed under the alias of Wray’s pal Bobby Howard, but the inception is absolutely beholden to the guitar player, as the second piece of the shack trifecta. A rambler, for sure, but the group gets things shakin’ on most cuts. The hip-moving “Scorpio Woman” could get the most modest of southern belles on the dancefloor. And its impossible to ignore Wray’s assault of a coda. The skronkin’ effects-laden solo pushes the veteran player to his avant-garde zenith with a battering that would fit right at home on a Faust record. “The Coca Cola Sign Blinds My Eyes” simmers over a cauldron of slide guitar and Howard pitches out a sultry blues akin to Pigpen’s croon, had The Dead been less cosmic, more country. The ensemble gets at their most cohesive on “All Because of a Woman.” This was the sound that should have been taken on the road – along with the material from the two Wray albums – as a monolithic Shack Band Revue. For sure, every roadhouse still standing in ‘72 would have had a crowd spilling into the parking lot. This traveling band may not have come to fruition, but the searcher vibes rear their head on side two opener, “On the Run.” The listless number wanders over its six-minute runtime, with harmonica accents, dobro, and phaser heavy power chords that drift between stereo channels and in and out of the song itself.
1972 was quiet for Wray. His brother Vernon packed up the shack and made his way out west (literally “Walkin’ in the Arizona Sun”), upgrading to an 8-track system shortly thereafter—though not before recording the now-legendary Wasted. Sales for Link Wray and Mordicai Jones weren’t great. Those familiar with Wray’s name and image were expecting “Rumble.” Instead they received an instrumentalist who decided it was time to sing his one lung out, publicly embrace his Indigenous roots, and play the most southern fried brand of folk-rock ever cooked up. Despite critical praise and the eventual cult status, the releases were deemed failures by Polydor. Quick to pick up the pieces, 1973 saw the release of Beans and Fatback. Recorded during the same sessions that made up the two previous LPs, the Virgin released slab features a familiar cast of faces and similar themes, but the delivery is even further reimagined.
In perhaps the oddest track to surface from these sessions, the title-cut/opener of Beans and Fatback, features cascading mandolin and jew’s harp moving along at breakneck speed. Suddenly, there’s an abrupt stop as “I’m So Glad, I’m So Proud” kicks into gear. The guitar workout absent from Link Wray, the tune satisfies any doubts over whether Wray still had the chops to shred with those who claimed him as their primary influence. “Shawnee Tribe” is a further acknowledgment of his Native American identity, in addition to a masterclass in amplified restraint. Slow, resonant, and haunting, the work here could be cited as the informal introduction of doom metal. And if that isn’t convincing enough, spin side two’s “Water Boy.” The track swirls around itself, wrapping into a repetitious flurry of single-chord blues that builds into a deafening silence. “Right or Wrong (You Lose)” gives yet another revelation in guitar mastery and sounds like nothing recorded until that point. Cans of nails, cardboard boxes, and dulcimers create a canvas for Wray to improvise over in one of the finest creations of his career. Like its predecessor, Bean and Fatback retains the sonic beauty within Wray’s songwriting. “Hobo Man” has an antiquated machismo that Ry Cooder would surely appreciate, and catchy chanting and muted guitar licks make for a good time. An homage to his upbringing, “From Tulsa to North Caroline” finds the group experimenting with variations on the simple chorus that runs the length of the song. The influences on the influencer come forth once more with Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” explored to great success on both sides. Overall, the feel of this final portion of the 3-track recordings is far looser and exploratory than those prior. What it lacks in singer-songwriter ambition is more than compensated for in ferocious instrumental experimentation. A combining of traditional music and high voltage aggression makes a perfect statement for Wray’s ideological mindset at the time: a synthesis of his own artistic origins with the deeper continuity present in original American music, whether that be blues, gospel, indigenous sounds, or country.
Ideally, all three of these slabs need to be played back to back, shuffled around, or in reverse order. Any way that you arrange it, the music is still one of the great testaments of Rock n Roll. Fortunately, the long-awaited reevaluation of Wray’s later career has finally arrived over the last decade. Reissues have been thoughtfully released, biographies and accolades continue to surface, and his legacy is regularly touted by artists of the 21st century. Long live the Link Wray rumble. | j rooney