By M. Scott Morris
Leo “Bud” Welch of Bruce knows what it means to take the show on the road. The 81-year-old has been a gospel and blues musician for the vast majority of his life.
As a member of the Sabougla Voices, he’s traveled to churches throughout the Delta to perform at homecomings and anniversaries.
“It was a group we put together,” he said. “We went with the pastor.”
As a bluesman, he’s performed at “picnics,” weekend events where the music went right along with homemade food and homemade liquor.
“We’d be out in the woods. Calhoun County has never been wet,” Welch said, “but we drank more here than someplace wet. I guarantee you that.”
He said he doesn’t drink like he did when “I’d wake up in the morning and my guitar was drunker than me.”
But he’s not slowing down. If anything, he’s speeding up. Last summer, Welch recorded his first album. “Sabougla Voices” was released Jan. 7 by Big Legal Mess Records and distributed by Fat Possum Records.
He’s toured throughout Mississippi and into Alabama and Tennessee, as well as multiple stops in Minnesota.
Later this month, he’ll go to New Orleans to record songs for a movie, and he already has his passport ready for a European tour in the summer.
“I’m playing bars now. The blues. They like gospel, too. I play some of it all,” he said. “I get somebody to join me when I go. If not, I play by myself. I’m a one-man band.”
Welch was born and raised in the Sabougla community in Calhoun County. He started playing guitar at age 13, even though he wasn’t supposed to.
“I watched my first cousin. His name was R.C. Welch. We watched him play. He owned a guitar. He bought it through the mail,” Welch said. “He told us he didn’t want to catch us fooling with his guitar. He’d go courting – that’s what we called it then – and before he came back, we’d have banged on that guitar and gotten it all out of tune.”
The clandestine sessions continued with Welch and his cousin, Orlando, until they were caught in the act.
“When he heard us play, he said, ‘I thought I told you not to play my guitar.’ I said, ‘You did. You did,’” Welch recalled. “He said, ‘I ain’t going to say anything else about that guitar. You play it better than I do.’”
Welch said playing guitar is only part of what he does.
“Singing is the key to music,” he said. “If you can play good and can’t sing, you still ain’t hitting nothing. If I couldn’t sing, I wouldn’t want to play. I’ve got to get the rhythm going.”
He played for school and church events, and at informal gatherings. Music was a nights and weekend thing. The bulk of his days for some 35 years were spent cutting timber.
“Those limbs, they could just fall on you,” he said. “The Lord’s been keeping me going. He let me stay around for something.”
Welch’s music remained relatively localized over the years. A man named Vencie Varnado, who was born and raised in Calhoun County, wanted to change that.
Varnado was in the Army and stationed in Europe in the 1990s, when he read about a Mississippi record company that wanted to help undiscovered blues artists get their music out to wider audiences.
He filed that information away and went about Army life until his discharge in 2011.
“I’d heard of Leo, who I always knew as Bud Welch, all my life, but I’d never heard him play,” Varnado said during a phone interview from his home in Millington, Tenn. “I’d heard people talking about how well he played guitar.”
Varnado wanted to capture video of Welch performing and take it to the record company. Welch turned him down.
“I felt that he didn’t really trust me,” Varnado said. “He knew my grandparents. He knew my parents. But how many times has he heard the same old story of someone wanting to help him?”
Varnado persisted and eventually hired Welch to perform at a birthday party. He took a secretly recorded video to the record company where he met with a little resistance until everyone realized who the video featured.
“They said they were trying to get a hold of him four or five years ago,” Varnado said.
(Find that video at YouTube.com by searching for “Leo ‘Bud’ Welch.”)
A meeting was arranged, and as Welch said, “I did some picking and some singing. They liked it.”
Martha Conley and Laverne Conley, members of the Sabougla Voices group, joined for the recording, which also featured Jimbo Mathus on guitar.
A reviewer at nodepression.com called Welch’s debut “primal Southern gospel-blues” and said “he’s brought together his church-bred gospel foundation with a love for the blues and produced music that recalls the electrifying call-and-response of preacher chants. Welch provides the rhythmic oratory, the guitar adds a soloist’s sting, and the piano, percussion and occasional backing singers provide the chorus. The spirit is lively and the testimony strong.”
‘Bang along with it’
“Sabougla Voices” features Welch’s original compositions.
“I don’t write them. I just go to sing them and make them up,” he said. “As I be playing, I make them up. I make it up and sing. I bang along with it and get the music right with it. I do my own thing.”
He performed for black audiences for most of his life as a musician. Now, it’s mostly whites who come to the clubs.
“They come to hear Leo. They like the old school stuff,” he said. “They like ‘going to Louisiana to get a mojo hand.’ I do it the Leo ‘Bud’ Welch way.”
He figured whites missed out on his type of music because of segregation, so he’s giving them a chance to experience it.
“People come out to listen,” he said, “and everywhere I go, they want me to come back.”
CDs and vinyl records are available at biglegalmessrecords.com and other online retailers. Welch also sells them on his travels for $15/CD and $20/vinyl.
“When I was coming up, I’d just play for fun,” he said. “Now, the money is rolling. I play for the money.”
Varnado does the driving and also sets up Welch’s equipment, though he doesn’t always do it properly.
“Sometimes, he doesn’t get the microphone exactly right,” Welch said. “I have to fix it. That’s important.”
He said that before a show he likes to take a drink of “some strong stuff to open my throat up,” then he plays the blues with some gospel and even a little bit of country thrown into the mix.
“I can play harmonica. I’m not famous on it, but I can blow a tune or two,” he said. “I can play fiddle, too. I can play a little bit on there. I play it on the country songs.”
Crowds have been appreciative, and people often want their pictures taken with him. He’s also been interviewed by numerous reporters, and had his music featured on National Public Radio.
These days, Leo “Bud” Welch is a man in demand, and he’s happy to keep the show going.
“I’m enjoying the best I ever enjoyed in my life,” he said.