There’s gonna be a revival tonight.

Thirteen seconds of a sparse snare and bum-dum-bum on the low end of a distant piano. Then, those six words welcome you into the world, and the truth, of Link Wray. Link Wray, the self-titled 1971 album that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, wasn’t the North Carolina musician’s first offering—far from it.

By that point, Wray had spent the better part of the sixties toiling in teen bop hell, and that was after he’d exploded the brains of young Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend, and Jimmy Page with his thunderous hit, “Rumble,” which managed to peak at No. 16 on the U.S. Billboard Top 100 in 1958, simultaneously becoming one of the first songs without words to be banned by American radio stations.

That is the unvarnished reality of how gifted Wray was. And even after cranking out mind-numbing albums stuffed by disingenuous, or at least misguided, labels, Wray still did not need to remind anyone who he was.

With the release of his 1971 album, though, Wray managed to simultaneously find and share his true self. The work, titled not to signal a desperate reminder but a true introduction, set a new tone for an artist who already had inspired a generation of soon-to-be world-class rock giants with a hard-nosed riff. He had, to this point in his career, failed to express himself fully: as a man born, molded, restrained, and claimed by the South; as a Christian raised in one-room churches where shouting the word “Amen” doubled as breathing; and as a Shawnee Tribe citizen, artist, and human being.

Wray was not recorded in the South; instead, it came to life in Maryland in a chicken coop in his older brother’s backyard. At the time, the album was also not considered a uniquely Indigenous production—and yet, what he walked away from would be just as Southern, Indigenous, and revelatory as any work of art that’s been produced by any Southern, Indigenous, or remade artist in the half-century since.

To appreciate the album in its totality requires one to have spent some serious time inside a Southern church—a statement that might sound peculiar, at first glance, about a record that includes Wray growling, with the one lung that tuberculosis didn’t steal from him, “I’m a crowbar, baby, I wanna pull out all your nails.”

Allow me to be more specific: understanding Wray requires one to have spent a Sunday morning squirming on an unforgivingly solid wooden pew, waiting for your congregation’s piano player—likely an aunt, maybe a cousin—to calmly take their seat on the bench, silently flip to your favorite hymn, and, after a subtle cue from the pulpit, raise the bodies, voices, and spirits of an entire room. It requires that room to be filled with people you know, love, fear, adore, despise; people you could never live without.

It requires, in my case, Calvary Baptist Church. Resting upon High Plains Road, the church is a home for all Sappony—one of North Carolina’s eight tribes and the one I will forever belong to. How Calvary and its predecessors came to hold its current place at the center of our tribal community is a complicated story wrapped in colonization, love, disdain, shelter, and escape.

As European forces became American forces, the march of westward expansion left little room for the East Coast tribes that miraculously withstood the initial wave. As southern society transitioned from one shaped by slavery to one shaped by segregation, Native communities, particularly in North Carolina, often found ourselves in the crosshairs of those who believed any land they stood on to be their God-given property. So we took refuge in the one place we could. We took shelter in Calvary.

It was the one place we were allowed to exist in peace by those who sought to relieve us of our land, our flesh, and even the words off our tongues. We learned their good book’s stories, we took on their faith and fear of the Lord, and we became—or, depending on your outlook, were turned into, by geopolitical forces that issued an assimilate-or-perish diktat—a Christian people.

In that sense, to continue holding Calvary as an epicenter of our community would seem to grant credence to the idea that the forces that drove us off of our lands and sought to snuff out our traditions were ultimately excused for their transgressions by the presence of a higher power—and they are not.

Yet, Calvary is the place where I played flashlight tag among the gravestones, which hold the bodies of dozens of my ancestors and relatives. It is the place where I looked on as my two older cousins rolled their eyes as a visiting pastor attempted to restate the importance of household gender roles—a hilarious statement, given that it is the women of our tribe who have always led us forward. It is the place where I played softball with my cousins until the night sky softly said, “No more.”

It is where I held back tears as I carried my grandmother down the steps to her final resting spot, and, during many of those aforementioned hymns, where I came as close to God as I likely will ever come in my lifetime. Regardless of whether I or anyone else wants it to be, it is the foundation of our High Plains community.

This, too, was true for Link Wray. His people, the Shawnee, did not live in nor come from North Carolina. As Dana Raidt detailed in her biography, LINK WRAY: The First Man in Black, Wray grew up in Dunn, down in Harnett County, where the heavy presence of the KKK, which routinely terrorized Native families throughout North Carolina, very clearly molded the violent realities that Wray relives in “Ice People,” the seventh entry on this album.

The problem that Wray encountered in his first four decades navigating a colonial society was that the American entertainment industries had little use or patience for a Native artist who desired to be themselves, let alone tap into their gospel roots. Wray’s run with Columbia’s Epic Records—then performing as Link Wray and the Wraymen—serves as a crystallized version of this nationwide misunderstanding. With singles like “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” Epic sought to round off his rough edges and smother any trace of his Shawnee self in hair gel and fitted suits. But something special happened in that chicken shack.

After summoning the jubilant energy of a revival in his opener, Wray uses the track “Take Me Home, Jesus,” to recount a warmer version of home, “where the smell is oh-so-sweet in the pines,” as a choir that could have doubled as our Calvary congregation softly coos, “Jesus, Jesus, do not pass me by.”

In “God Out West,” Wray offers a fascinating exploration of the Manifest Destiny mindset, wherein he repeatedly assures us that the “Lord found me a place.” The song is split in two by a searing, distorted solo before re-centering Wray and his choir, who repeat the refrain, “Sing it, Hallelujah,” until everything fades into “Crowbar.” But the heart of the album is the raucous “Fire and Brimstone.” ”

From the moment that Wray’s wild-fingered guitar picking breaks the moment of silence between songs, it’s clear that his opening salvo predicting a revival was less an invitation than a vision. In “Brimstone,” Wray recounts a dream in which he presumably watches on helplessly as the full weight of the Lord’s might is rained down upon his head. And in an album full of fairly similar song structures, the anchoring solo here feels no more predictable, and no less blood-pumping, than the rest, as Wray sets the coop ablaze before stretching his vocal chords to their extreme, screaming, “I saw fi-yah! I saw fi-yah!”

That backyard chicken coop functioned for Wray the way that the church has functioned for Southern Natives—an escape within a trap. From this same session, Wray and his brother produced the 1973 album, Beans and Fatback, which includes a stripped down version of “Shawnee Tribe,” a song he’d re-release on 2008’s “Apache,” then smothered by electricity and reverb into a near-unrecognizable, though still admittedly nod-inducing, state.

Outside of the coop, there were still label bosses and radio executives who would sneer at the thought of promoting an outwardly proud Indigenous artist. To record an album in hopes of selling it to such people was to be partially complicit in the construction of the box he’d been born into.

But in that coop—that pocket of freedom—he managed to dig into his soul and realize, as many of us have over the years in the church, that our souls are the one place that colonizers can never truly touch, regardless of how many boarding schools, Klan rallies, or oppressive congressional acts they foster.

In creating Wray, its namesake did not find a way to outsmart an industry or usurp the anti-Indigenous roadblocks that still exist to trip up and hold back Native artists today. He had found, instead, a way to be free in a world that still demands we be anything but. 

Nick Martin is a member of the Sappony Tribe and a staff writer at The New Republic.

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