They say that the men and women who master the blues are often doomed to live short lives, mirroring the darkness of the soul that the music is based around. But that stereotype is just one of many that 81-year-old Mississippi bluesman Leo "Bud" Welch has shattered in his lifetime. Born and raised in a small country town, Welch spent most of his adult life perfecting his craft busking at town fairs and house parties after long, hard days spent working in the fields or lumber mills. It's a crime, but as strong as his talent was, Welch never received any major attention, and if it hadn't been for one chance cold-call to Mississippi-based record label Big Legal Mess last year, he may have finished out his days without an album to his name.
Thanks to those circumstances, and probably a little prodding from his big buddy up in the sky, Welch was able to form a group and release his album Sabougla Voices earlier this year. A potent mix of down-home gospel and country-blues, the album captures more than a half-century's worth of inspiration from the stellar performer, who will be arriving in the Twin Cities for a handful shows this week.
Gimme Noise: When did you first pick up a guitar? Did you teach yourself how to play?
Leo "Bud" Welch: When I was about 13 years old. It was back in about 1945; I was born in 1932. The guitar was my first instrument.
Did anyone teach you how to play the blues, or did you teach yourself?
I learned from my first cousin, I watched how he played the thing on his step at night, I remember watchin' him. Me and his baby brother, he wouldn't let us borrow his guitar, and so he told us when he brought it home that he didn't want us putting any nicks on his guitar. But he would go out and when he came back in, we was wailing on the guitar and everything. So he said, "I thought I told you boys not to borrow my guitar! But I tell you what, I ain't gonna say nothing yet because y'all playin' better then I am!" But if I think about it, he never learned to play all that well. But when he was gone, we had music goin'! I learned how to tune it in my own way and I called that "High Tune," after that we learned how to tune it in Spanish and everything, and I been playing ever since. One of the first songs that I ever learned to hit a note or two on was "Baby Please Don't Go."
Did you have a lot of time to play after you got off working at the logging job?
We would sit down when we got in the house and play at night if I didn't get too tired from the job. We wouldn't be out in the woods or out in the fields at night, so that's when I played mostly was at night. I haven't had to hold a chainsaw in about 30, 35 years though.
Most of us in the North don't have much of an idea of what towns like the one you're from are like, could you tell me about it?
I was born in a place they call Sabougla, Missisippi. After that I moved to Athens, [Mississippi], that's why I called the group "Leo Welch and the Sabougla Voices." Back in them days people would have what they call house parties, or whatever you want to call them. I would play for them, through the day I'm working playing music or pulling cotton, or if it was gathering time, picking cotton. Working on the farm, and then goin' out playing with cousin, we'd have a lot of fun, yeah. I played all around the country picnics, sometimes they'd have a three-day picnic, Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday night. We'd play all them gigs, then went to having house parties and we'd play for those.
How did your community support your music over the years?
Oh no, them small towns man, I figure it's because they're poor and they're just country people. I love living out in the country, but Sabougla wasn't nothing but a two-store spot. It's a country town. There was only two stores, wasn't even a post office there. There wasn't no law in town, it was all just country people. My home was, I call it the "in the sticks, just a house in the middle of a cotton field or corn field somewhere." So that's where I came up, and then I went to school at Sabougla grammar school, that's the only school I went to. Then I just quit to go to work and never went back. I went one day to sign to go to high school but I couldn't convince myself to go and my daddy wouldn't let me leave either, so I went to work then. Working in the fields, working day-by-day, didn't get paid much, but I worked for 50 cents a day, I worked for a dollar a day. That was back in '49 or '50.
Did you ever tour, or travel to play shows in other towns?
No, I didn't do no traveling. In the neighborhood I'd walk if it was close, that was all anyone did then was walk wherever we'd go. The only big crowds would be at them picnics and things, they had them in the real hot part of the summertime, like July. I'd have to walk to them though! Not many people had cars, they wouldn't holler and come pick me up and stuff. I'd sling my guitar over my back with a strap and down the road I'd go.
You've spent a lot of time singing and playing in the churches around your home town over the years. How has church helped your music?
Oh yeah I played a lot in the church. They got me started playing for the church and playing for devotional services. I also played for the choir, when they organized a group. When the preacher would go and visit a place the choir would go, so me, my sister, and my sister-in-law would go and sing. We were from Baptist Church of Sabougla, so that's why I named my group the Sabougla Voices. I call my sister and my sister-in-law the Sabougla Voices, so that's where that name came from that's on that CD now. I still have my membership at that church in Sabougla.
Do you think playing the blues and playing gospel are all that different?
It ain't much different. Listen, the only thing that's different in 'em is the words in what songs we're singing. When you're signing gospel and playing blues or singing blues, all those things almost sound alike! The music all will sound alike, you know? There isn't much difference in gospel music and blues music; it's all about the same in my book.
What made you decide to give Big Legal Mess a call that one day? What led up to that decision?
My producer, he wanted to do a rough recording first. Then he or Vencie [Leo's manager] was able to speak to the guy, his name was Bruce Watson from Big Legal Mess. Vencie sent off the recording to Bruce, and then Bruce listened to and Bruce got it and played it to his people, and in two weeks we was in then in about two more weeks we was done recording!
How long have you been playing the songs that are on your album?
Oh, a long time! Some of 'em back 20 years, I guess, and some of 'em I know I've been playing for longer. They all made their way over a long journey except for one or two. I wrote some of them myself, "Praise His Name" and "His Holy Name," I started playing them songs back in 1999. The songs I picked up. I might have heard somebody else sing it, but I don't sing it like they do or play guitar like them.
Do you think you'll ever record another album, or was this a onetime deal?
Oh no! This is the beginning! I hope to record a blues album later on, that's how I started off was playing the blues, I can tell you the next one's gonna be the blues.
How does it feel to be on tour again now? Did you ever expect to have any of this happen?
No, I didn't expect it to happen, but as I said long ago, my manager made it happen. He's backin' me up when we talk, I call him Big Money. If it weren't for him I'd be out in the woods doing nothing right now. He's my backbone. We met while I was staying down in Bruce, Mississippi, there. I was stayin' down the street and one day he passed and said to me, "I figure you can play a guitar or two. I know I guy who'd probably record you if you go with me." They had a birthday party in April of last year, and he got me to play his birthday party. He said he'd remember the moment he seen me play that for years. I give all my credit to Big Money!
Leo Welch will perform Thursday, January 16, at the Dubliner Pub; Friday, January 17, at Palmer's Bar; Saturday, January 18, at Hell's Kitchen and Harriet Brewing; and
Sunday, January 19, at Hell's Kitchen and the 331 Club.