Most stories about guitarist Link Wray focus on his 1958 radio hit “Rumble,” a vaguely menacing, instrumental rock song that had no predecessor. They talk about how he punctured his amp with a pencil to get a grittier sound, maybe about the way his slick-hair, rockabilly, leather jacket look predated Elvis’. For the Oxford American‘s new music issue, journalist John O’Connor focuses on Wray’s lesser known masterpieces: the three albums fans call the shack sessions.
Despite the influence Link Wray’s instrumentals had on rock and roll on both sides of the Atlantic, from The Who to Jimmy Page, nothing brought Link much financial security or relief from the grueling life of touring tiny holes-in-the-walls. To retool his career and break free from the instrumental rock genre where he made his name, Link and his brothers started jamming in the early 1970s in the family’s rural chicken shack. The sessions mixed blues, folk, gospel, and country, featured singing, and produced rootsy music that sound like no other in Wray’s vast catalogue. Yet somehow, few people have written about this milestone in his creative life. O’Connor’s story “Mystic Chords” stands alone in the Link Wray literary canon. O’Connor talked with me about Link, journalism, and writing this epic story.
If I read your story correctly, you didn’t know much about Link Wray before researching this article. How did you find him and the story of his shack albums?
You read it correctly. My friend Dacus put the song “La De Da” from Link Wray on a mixtape a few years ago (“mixtape” isn’t quite right, but you know what I mean, a Dropbox thing) and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I’d always thought of myself as educated about obscure ’70s rock or Americana or whatever you want to call it. I’ve got a hard-and-fast rule in record shops about buying LPs from ’71, 72, 73 ─ precisely the Shack era ─ if the price is right, and especially if there’s a funny-looking dude on the cover. So I was embarrassed that I’d never even heard of Link. And puzzled. I mean, how was it possible that I made it into my 40s without ever hearing Link Wray and the other Shack records? What else had I missed? All this stuff came up online about him having invented the power-chord, and how the rock gods all worshipped him: Townshend and Page, Dylan and Young. My embarrassment deepened, as did a curiosity about Link. That he was Native American added a layer of intrigue, because at that point, besides Robbie Robertson of The Band and Buffy Sainte-Marie, I probably couldn’t have named a single Native American musician, I’m ashamed to say. Actually, I could’ve named some: Karen Dalton, Jesse Ed Davis, Jimmy Carl Black, who played with Zappa. But I just didn’t know they were Native American, which is weird. This was all very maddening to me. Then, trying to find out more about Link got to be pretty dispiriting pretty quick. So much of what was written about him seemed cursory, half-baked, or worse. I had two early conversations with folks ─ Greg Laxton of the now defunct website linkwray.com, and Sherry Wray, Link’s neice ─ that convinced me basically everything I thought I knew about Link was wrong. Greg put me in touch with the producer Steve Verroca, who nobody had heard from in years. The story was writing itself.
Wow, that’s a strong start. When writers have questions that they’re compelled to answer, things get interesting, and the stories that result can have more urgency than ones that arise solely from a desire to tell a story. So when you started searching for answers, was there just a dearth of information about Link? Or a lack of humanizing detail?
There were a couple of starting points, like Jimmy McDonough’s article, which came out not long after Link’s death. He knew Link and seems to have talked to everyone else who knew him. It’s a fun read. But it’s also a tribute, as McDonough admits, a piece of hero worship, and therefore limited. And it came out twelve years ago. There wasn’t much else. Link didn’t give many interviews. Not by choice. He just wasn’t asked. This partly explains why so many of the stories about him are recycled and/or patently false. When he died, some obits referred to him as “Frederick Lincoln Wray.” At no point in his life was he named Frederick. It was also said that he had one son, when he had four. Anyway, that stuff’s easy to check. What’s nearly impossible to dissect is all the family conflict and bad feeling that endure over Link’s publishing rights, and the competing narratives, some of them legal in nature, about Link and his legacy. It’s still very raw for these folks.
Producer Steve Verocca is a key player in this story. Was he surprised you found him? And what happened when you started talking to him?
Greg Laxton got me in the door with Steve. I think he was skeptical. But Link’s music is also Steve’s legacy, in a way, and he was ready to talk. He had a pretty successful and multi-tentacled career, but as I say in the piece, Link sort of presides over it all. After we talked a couple of times, Steve hinted that he had some Shack-era stuff he was willing to share with me, but he wanted me to come to Virginia to see for myself. He didn’t say what it was, only that my mind would be blown. I thought maybe he had some outtakes or something. He surprised me there. But this speaks to your question above, too. My two principle sources were Steve and Sherry Wray. They disagree on essentially every point. Not just about Link. They’d disagree about what time of day it is. By the time I started talking to Steve, I’d already spent a lot of time on the phone with Sherry. So what happened when I started talking to him was my head started really spinning.
As a journalist, how do you build trust with a skeptical source like Steve Verocca?
By talking to them, being patient, listening. People, generally, want to talk, even to complete strangers about incredibly personal stuff. They want their versions out there. You just have to be patient. Most people will go their entire lives without anyone ever asking them what they think about something. Nobody’s ever asked them for their opinion about anything, ever, and then suddenly you come along.
So Steve Verocca and Sherry Wray’s accounts conflict on nearly every point. As a journalist, how do you negotiate that sort of conflict between sources, especialy when they’re your two primary sources?
Checking with other people as best you can. I forget what the journalism rule is, something like cross-checking with two or more sources, or trying to. I offer a caveat in the piece along the lines of, I’m just trying to find a plausible centerline here. You know, looking for the path of least resistance. I’m on the outside looking in. Link’s dead. His brothers are long dead. Almost everyone who knew him or played at the Shack is dead. So I’m kind of at the mercy of secondhand stories. Maybe a good way to think about it is like a conversation between two people who’re both monologists and waiting for the other person to shut-up so they can resume talking and finish what they were saying. You’re a moderator, but one who’s also speaking to a dozen other people who’re weighing-in about what’s being said.
Link fans will salivate to hear that a whole fourth shack album exists and remains unreleased. In your piece, Verocca says he’d like to release this “When the time’s right.” Do you know if he has anything in the works? Are you going to help get that music out there? Do I sound like a crazy fan here? It’s just, when a person reaches an advanced age, biology has sort of made the time right.
I hope he releases it, but I don’t think he plans to do it anytime soon. A mutual friend reminded me the other day that Steve’s an old school record biz cat. Releasing stuff digitally just doesn’t register. He wants a physical product. And the chances of that are probably pretty slim, unfortunately. But you never know. Steve loves this record. It’s his favorite Shack record. He’s very proud of it. So it follows that he’d want people to hear it.
You admit you’re not a fan of “Rumble.” Now that you know so much more about Link and his music, and have listened to about everything he recorded, what do you think of his earlier, better known rock instrumentals?
I mean, I know what this stuff must’ve meant at the time, given the context. A few years before, “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts, a runaway smash hit! So, obviously an improvement. Which is the understatement of understatements. But it’d require some time-travel on my part to really appreciate “Raw-Hide” and “Jack the Ripper” and the rest.