Back To Basics

Sometimes when looking for inspiration, it helps to go back to the folks who started it all. But sometimes the truth of where things started are more or less lost to the myths of popular culture. In this installment, I want to take a look at a couple of guitarists who are often overlooked, but who can honestly be said to be real driving forces behind more than one musical genre.

What if I told you that the guy who invented punk rock, popularized the basic harmonic ideas of modern rock and metal, and who was a direct influence on Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Townsend and others is someone you’ve never heard of and who will never get into the Rock Hall of Fame. You’d think I was crazy. But I’m not, that artist is . . .

Link Wray

His single Rumble is what made Pete Townsend pick up the guitar in the first place. Link didn’t invent the power chord of course, that harmonic idea has been around for centuries, but he did apply it to rock guitar. When he did that, Link set the stage for the entire direction of the rock genre.

Hailing from Dunn, North Carolina, Link had few choices in the musical world. He could be a country guy or a country guy. So in the early 1950’s he teamed up with his brothers Vernon and Doug and formed Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers. By 1955 they’d changed their name to Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands. Not precisely the stuff of rock legend! They moved to the Washington, D.C. area and added Shorty Horton on bass. Vernon did the vocals as Link was missing a lung from catching a bad case of tuberculosis while in the Army during the Korean War. So Link was left to playing the guitar, which he took to with great enthusiasm.

They had some minor success, but it wasn’t until they worked down to a trio, Vernon Wray changed his name to Ray Vernon and the group changed their name to The Ray-men that they found their groove.

Link was a great improviser and never backed down from a challenge. One gig, during a set, the house crowd asked for a stroll. Says Link, “They wanted me to play a stroll. I didn’t know any, so I made one up. I made up Rumble.”

The recording companies almost passed on Rumble, but the Cadence label owner Archie Bleyer’s daughter wouldn’t let her dad off the hook. She said the whole song reminded her of the fight scenes in West Side Story, so Bleyer renamed the song, and it soon topped at #16.

Cadence records came under immediate fire for releasing a song that “was promoting teenage gang warfare.” To counter this bad press, Bleyer tried to get The Ray-Men to team up with some Nashville clean-cut straight country artists for their next record. The Wray brothers saw no point to that, and broke their contract with Cadence, teaming up with Epic records.

With Epic, their follow-up to Rumble was the single Rawhide, which was, of course, an immediate hit.

Still, the Epic label wanted to clean up Link, get him out of his black leather jacket, and sell him as a country artist. Link and his brother wanted none of this. They liked being the bad boys on stage, and after a few stints recording things like Danny Boy backed by an orchestra, The Ray-men left Epic as soon as they could.

They formed their own label, Rumble Records, with the hope that being out on their own and out from the clueless label mangers, they could find the success their music clearly deserved. Their next big hit, recorded under Rumble Records was the single Jack The Ripper. In order to get the echo effect they wanted, they put Link’s amp at one end of a hotel staircase and the microphone at the other end.

But it wasn’t until Swan Records picked up Jack The Ripper that the brothers were able to get national coverage for the song. Swan Records liked Link and his brothers, and under a new contract, gave them free reign to experiment with different sounds and to dress and act how they wanted. Swan, like Epic and Cadence, came under heavy fire for “allowing” the band to do it’s live gigs in the roughest clubs it could find, and earning a reputation as serious party animals, the likes of which the newly evolved Rock World had yet to see. But Swan’s president understood what it had in Link, and would respond to his critics with a shrug and a smile, saying, “What can you do with an animal like that?”

Link’s career continued into the ’70’s, ’80’s and he still plays today. While Link never had another hit like Rumble, his influence in all of rock music is profound. Now in his late ’70’s, Link continues to tour. Sadly, most of his records are not readily available, and one has to work hard to find his music. But you can find a few places on the web selling CD’s of his songs. Particularly worthwhile is the CD of Swan record singles. Another source for hearing Link is through “Link Wray-dio” station.

Link is on tour through at least July of 2005, and if you can find him near you, go see the grandfather of punk!

Now how would you feel if I said that the most important guitarist in Country Music wasn’t Chet Atkins? You’d think I had flipped a lid. And I might have. But, there’s a good case to be made that while Chet was a phenomenal guitarist and musical talent, it was his skills as a producer, manager, engineer, and record executive that really earned him his stripes. But for pure Country Guitar glory, you have to look to…

Grady Martin

Thomas Grady Martin was born in 1929 in rural Tennessee. The youngest of four, he was spoiled a bit by his family, even through the rough depression years. He learned music from his mother and began recording at the age of 15. He dropped out of school to pursue his love of music and made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 with the Bailes Brothers Band.

Grady was playing as a session musician and working the Grand Ole Opry regularly, as well as appearing on the Ozark Jubilee and the Kate Smith Show. He played on countless country hits, and was soon one of the most sought after guitarists in Nashville. He played backing guitar for any number of artists, from Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Waylan Jennings, Joan Baez, J.J. Cale, Patsy Cline, and countless others.

Martin had his own band, The Slew Foot Five. They regularly played on records with a number of great vocalists. They are present on recordings by Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, and others. However, their own recordings, released by the Decca label, did not garner much attention.

Grady’s style of music influenced early Rockabilly, Country and Rock. Chet Atkins may be responsible for producing the Nashville sound, but it was Grady Martin who was responsible for playing it. When Atkins was producer, Grady Martin was his favorite guitar player.

Grady remained busy through the 1970’s, working with Elvis, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, and Kris Kristofferson.

In 1978 he joined Jerry Reed’s band to return to doing live performing. He played on the soundtrack to Honeysuckle Rose, where he rejoined up with his old friend Willie Nelson, and from there spent the next sixteen years as a member of Willie’s band. He had to quit in the early 1990’s, owing to his health starting to fail him.

From Spanish-style nylon string country guitar on Marty Robbins’ single El Paso to rock-n-roll electric work on Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison’s Nashville sessions, to finger-picking country licks with Willie Nelson, to folk singer-songwriter styling with Joan Baez, Grady Martin simply did it all. And he did it better than any other country guitarist since.

While it would be impossible to list all of the records Grady played on, it is safe to say that if it was a Nashville Record released between 1946 and 1975 and it had a great guitar riff, it very well probably was Grady! Still, Sony Music has put together some of his best work on one CD called Cowboy Classics.

Grady died in 2001 after a long illness.

As always, I’m always excited to hear about guitarists. Please send your feedback to [email protected]. If there’s someone in particular you’d like to see profiled, or you want to take issue with some point I’ve made, drop me a line. While playing the guitar is more fun that talking about guitarists, it’s a close call! Let me know your thoughts!