A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

<span data-mce-type="bookmark" style="display: inline-block; width: 0px; overflow: hidden; line-height: 0;" class="mce_SELRES_start"></span> If you travel near the rivers and ponds in and around Dunn, you’re bound to spot the eastern bald

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

<span data-mce-type="bookmark" style="display: inline-block; width: 0px; overflow: hidden; line-height: 0;" class="mce_SELRES_start"></span> If you travel near the rivers and ponds in and around Dunn, you’re bound to spot the eastern bald

Link Wray & the Chord Heard ’Round the World

If you travel near the rivers and ponds in and around Dunn, you’re bound to spot the eastern bald cypress — those ancient, slow-growing trees whose mighty, pyramid-like bases are permanently plunged in swampy water, their knees and gnarled trunks scarred by history and shaped by storms. Seen together, they appear like gatherings of goblins, like prehistoric creatures, which they sort of are. In 2019, the oldest bald cypress in the world was identified right here in the Black River Preserve, dating back about 2,600 years to 605 B.C., the era of the Babylonian empire. I’m navigating this area by song lyrics as I head toward the hometown of Link Wray, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in May for his enormous influence on rock guitarists ranging from Neil Young to Jimi Hendrix.

All of Link’s songs are driving songs; many are wildfire, pure feeling, and wordless. Some, like “Rumble” — his first hit with Link Wray & His Ray Men, in 1958, the song in which he’s credited with “inventing” the power chord — are all of those things at once. But the one I’m driving to, “Black River Swamp,” recorded in 1971, is a map. You have to get in your head the picture of peak Link — that black wall of sideburns edging into his face, all dark sunglasses and leather; born part Shawnee and raised near these swamps — to fully comprehend the many dimensions that exist below the sentimental surface of lyrics like, “Turning off the main highway, goin’ down that country road/There’s a place down in the country where the pine trees grow so tall.”

Except for the modern vehicles and shops, the look of downtown Dunn and the tiny Black River Church (below) haven’t changed much since around the time that the Wrays lived here. photograph by Charles Harris

photograph by Charles Harris

I’m listening as I drive past pinewoods, a little wooden home painted pink with red trim, a plain white house of worship named simply Black River Church, and on to cypress-studded Rhodes Pond, where Link played and sang as a child. At the moment that I hear him singing, “I was born down in the country, down where the cotton grows,” I swear I’m passing fields full of harvested and wrapped spools of it, waiting to be hauled off. I’m just down the road from the Black River Swamp of the song’s title. Trees are the original noise barriers, and I’m thinking about the kinds of sounds that those rare, moss-covered eastern cypresses have absorbed over time.

It’s maybe a strange proposition to look for traces of Link Wray in Dunn, in a state that he moved away from when he was a teenager, when he himself was the spiritual age of “Rumble.” I happened to be in North Carolina in 1998, when he made a rare return visit to play a concert at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill. It was during his first tour in 30 years, a night so ephemeral and practically undocumented that it’s hard to believe that it even occurred. You can see footage of him performing that year on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, resembling my memory of that night — a visitor who’d crept out of semi-obscurity from his adopted home in Denmark, still bearing an accent hyper-particular to his hometown region and era. The man who’d revolutionized rock ’n’ roll still wore dark shades and a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, his shaggy, extra-long ponytail whipping behind him like a trail of Spanish moss.

• • •

I came to Link’s music via the ’90s punk scene and college radio in Greensboro, at the age when you should first encounter it, young and reckless, when whatever psychic fire that you’re starting needs some extra igniting fluid. Already, I’d sublimated “Rumble” via film — John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, the diner scene in Pulp Fiction. “Rumble” has wordlessly suggested rebellion in everything from The Sopranos to SpongeBob SquarePants to, most recently, Poker Face.

That night at the Cradle, Link played “Rumble” and two of his other well-known songs, “Raw-Hide” and “Ace of Spades,” more than once, but nobody minded. He’d earned the right. He covered “Mystery Train” — he was a true-blue Elvis Presley fan — and Hank Williams, whose songs, he once said, “just struck a nerve in my heart.” There was an eerie, torch-passing feeling that night: the sensation of being in a room with a person who accidentally lit the way for so much other music that I loved, all of it rooted in that one simple, distorted, electric chord.

The Wray exhibit at the Dunn Area History Museum — including his guitars and album covers — sits amid displays on farm equipment and the area’s Native American history. photograph by Charles Harris

The fact that “Rumble” remains the only instrumental song ever to be banned from radio in the United States (some people actually believed that it would inspire gang violence) only amplifies its inherent cool. In 1958, “Rumble” was a No. 16 pop hit; 11 on the R&B charts. Within a decade, the song would become a primal inspiration for legions of titanic rock ’n’ rollers. Bob Dylan, who called it “the best instrumental ever,” covered the song in concert in 2005 after he learned that Link had died. “‘Rumble’ made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock and roll was gonna go,” said Robbie Robertson of The Band in the documentary RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Pete Townshend of The Who channeled Link’s distorted power chords into his own band’s Top 10 hit of 1967, “I Can See for Miles.” And Iggy Pop, of fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Famers The Stooges, recalled being in a university student union the first time he heard the powerful opening chords of “Rumble”: “Da, da, daaaaaaaa … I left school emotionally at that moment.”

• • •

Link Wray didn’t write or record “Rumble” in Dunn, but the song’s underlying message of liberation and escape might’ve summed up his early feelings about where he came from. He was born Fred Lincoln Wray Jr. on May 2, 1929, right in between his brothers and future bandmates, Vernon and Doug. His father, Fred, was a pipe fitter and a World War I vet; his mother, Lillian, was Shawnee and, according to Link, spiritual verging on mystic. He later recalled how she’d take him and his brothers to Black gospel churches and to outdoor revivals known as “brush meetings.” Sometimes, they’d wander Rhodes Pond, just south of Dunn, harmonizing to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Link’s childhood memories were a blend of the mythic and the traumatic, of beauty and righteous fear. “I was from the poorest part of North Carolina — Dunn, where I was not white and it was not safe,” he told the writer Jimmy McDonough in 1997. “Elvis was brought up poor in Tupelo, Mississippi, but he was still a poor white guy — and the whites ruled the world down South. My mother was a Shawnee down South, right? Ku Klux Klan country.”

When she was 11 years old, Lillian had her back broken by another girl on the way home from school; handicapped, she withdrew from her classes. Outfitted in a back brace as an adult, she picked cotton and churned butter to sell. Link recalled growing up in a dirt-floor house with no electricity.

The Wrays would wander Rhodes Pond, harmonizing to “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”

While Vernon and Doug inherited the fair-haired looks of their white, Indiana-born father, Link took after his mother’s side, a heritage that he was taught to suppress in order to survive. The Klan targeted both Black and Native American people, particularly in triracial areas like some eastern North Carolina counties were at the time. In 1958, the year “Rumble” was released, KKK members, led by a South Carolina Klansman, burned crosses in the yards of local Lumbee families in nearby Robeson County; members of the Lumbee tribe led an uprising that prompted a national outcry. But in the 1930s and early ’40s, when Link was a kid, he was isolated from his culture and community, and he remembers running whenever the Klan was rumored to be near. “We’d hide underneath the bed, hopin’ they wouldn’t come for us,” he said.

In 1943, when Link was in his early teens, the family moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, where they lived in government housing near the shipyards, suddenly surrounded by new people, new music, and new radio stations to tune into. The Wray brothers formed bands and tried their hand at everything from Western swing to rock ’n’ roll. In the mid-1950s, after contracting tuberculosis during his service in the Korean War, Link had a lung removed. At first it was unclear if he’d be able to sing again. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t even have to.

photograph by Charles Harris

Link’s recollection of what transpired at a record hop in 1957 is inventor’s lore on the level of electricity harnessed in a lightning storm with a kite and a metal key. “God zaps this here ‘Rumble’ in my head,” he once said, describing the performance in which the band of brothers from the Dunn swamps spontaneously created the song right on stage. Doug had laid out a slow, exaggerated drum beat, laden with suspense, and Link responded with a heavy, three-chord drone on his Gibson Les Paul. Vernon picked up a mic and stuck it up to Link’s amplifier, setting off a loud, rattling reverberation that made the crowd go wild.

Later, in the studio, Link duplicated that gritty sound by poking pencils into an amp, allegedly inspired by a traveling guitar-playing bluesman he’d met as a child. In the summer of 1958, “Rumble” became a hit, followed by more songs in the same gloriously distorted vein, all now classics in their own right: “Raw-Hide,” “Jack the Ripper,” “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Babe.” Each featured Link’s dramatic-effect heaving pauses, perhaps on account of that overtime-working lung. Link Wray and his Ray Men played on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. But sometime in the ’60s, it all stopped. “My type of music, the Elvis music and all that early music, died with President Kennedy,” Link said later. By the time that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the rest of the mid-’60s British Invasion bands took hold in America, Link had retreated to Maryland, gigging occasionally at a place called the Two Thieves Club: “I was doing [Creedence Clearwater Revival] and Elvis [songs] while the rest of the world was playing, you know, acid music …” Drugs were “Satan’s candy,” according to Link, a spiritual-but-not-religious, coffee-addicted, vitamin-popping, switchblade-carrying, beer-drinking vegetarian. His last charting single was a beguiling cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”

Discord reigned for years among the Wray brothers, who never earned much for their music. Vernon, who’d started a taxi cab franchise and waxed bowling alley lanes for a living, moved to Tucson, where Link also lived for a while in a trailer in the desert, and during that period recorded four songs with Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead on pedal steel. Vernon acted in episodes of Gunsmoke and had a cameo in the Martin Scorsese film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In 1979, dying of cancer, Vernon ended his life. Doug died of a heart attack five years later. By then, Link had moved to Denmark, where he married his fourth wife, Olive, a student of Native American studies who became his manager. When Link died of heart failure in 2005 at the age of 76, he was a father of nine kids and had 24 grandkids. His ashes are interned in a fittingly gothic setting: a crypt in an 18th-century rococo church in Copenhagen.

• • •

When I return to Dunn, it’s going on 20 years since Link’s death and more than 60 since the release of “Rumble.” There’s no record store in town, but there should be. You’re unlikely to score any first pressings of Link’s records in the secondhand shops, not even the delightfully named Saks Thrift Avenue. Except for the festival that celebrates his music some years, you may not hear Link at all: The local AM station broadcasts gospel music, local talk shows, church supper announcements. But one morning, a caller with a voice and cadence eerily similar to Link’s dials in: He’s got puppies for sale.

Wray’s descendants — including children Beth Wray Webb (third from right) in between Link Wray III (fourth from right) and Link Elvis Wray (in ball cap) — appeared in Dunn for the unveiling of the guitarist’s mural. photograph by Charles Harris

This year, on Link’s birthday, May 2, artist Scott Nurkin — whose murals of Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and other North Carolina music legends grace their respective hometowns — unveiled a wall-size painting of Link downtown, less than a mile from the historical marker that sits near a spot where the Wrays once lived. Link’s story is told inside the Dunn Area History Museum, displayed a few exhibits down from the local Indian artifacts, including Coharie pieces unearthed by museum staffer and Coharie member Christy Brewington Moore. She worked with Link’s daughter Beth, who now lives in Virginia, on the exhibit devoted to him, featuring early publicity pictures, a decorated Twin Tone electric guitar, and his posthumous Hall of Fame certificate for “Rumble.”

The albums on display include an autographed copy of his self-titled Link Wray, from 1971, the album that’s served as my road map through Dunn. This is the record in which Link proudly proclaimed his Shawnee roots in a gatefold cover featuring a portrait of himself in profile, wearing a beaded necklace, his long hair in a headband. Link’s looping cursive snakes around the contours of his cutout silhouette: I Love You Very Much Your Dad Link Wray, he wrote to Beth.

It took decades for Wray to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but this year, he finally made it. He was inducted into his home state’s Music Hall of Fame in 2014. photograph by Charles Harris

The album, recorded on a farm that Vernon bought in Accokeek, Maryland, 300 miles from the Wrays’ hometown, would be the brothers’ last full-length project together. The session took place in a former chicken coop with a rusted piano and broken windows. If “Rumble” stemmed from a desire to rebel against the world that his family came from, Link Wray summoned both a melancholic longing for place and, in songs like “Fire and Brimstone,” a refusal to be pinned down by it. You could call it Link’s swamp-rock album, or his country-funk album, or his gospel-blues or Shawnee-roots album — or all of the above. Either way, the songs are in kinship with those of artists like The Meters, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Little Feat, and Dale Hawkins — and all of the other music that Link made and absorbed, ancient bald cypress-like, in his lifetime.

You also could call Link Wray his North Carolina album, even though it was recorded in Maryland. In the mix, you are sure to hear the roof rattling, the walls shaking, the foot-stomping percussion. But the song that I want to go out on, the last notes for those stalwart roadside cypresses poking out of the water, is “La De Da.” In this one, underneath Link’s vocals and a steady-rainfall percussion, a deep, loping bass conspires with wandering guitars, a feeling of night air and endless horizon that makes you just want to roll down the windows. “Everybody singing la de da!” the backing chorus goes, punctuated with whoops and shrieks of joy. It’s a song of pure abandon and liberation, a song of deliverance.

This story was published on Jun 27, 2023

Rebecca Bengal

Rebecca Bengal is the author of Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists, published by Aperture. Originally from western North Carolina, she lives in Brooklyn.