One rockin’ octogenarian
MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason
For 82-year-old guitarist/singer Leo “Bud” Welch, it’s been the biggest year of his life. The first real-deal, old-school Mississippi bluesman to be discovered and recorded in a long time made his first album in January, got his first passport and took his first flight from as far back in the woods as one can get in 21st century North America.
“All those people out there; that’s as many in one place at one time as I’ve seen all out together in my whole life,” he told me backstage at the Vancouver Island MusicFest in July. “What took me so long? I had nobody depending on going out there and getting me started. Couldn’t get nobody… get a helping hand.
“Just me and my guitar and the good Lord keeping me going, letting me stay around for something while he made a way. I needed something to come along easier for me.
“Thank God, I got it going,” he grins, lopsidedly. “I still get around good, don’t walk with no stick or nothin, get up and dance when it moves me,” he added, adjusting his ball cap and running his hands over one of the suits and ties he wears when performing. His hot pink electric guitar – a symbol of the fight against breast cancer, which has taken too many from his small circle – is emblazoned with his name in stick-on postal box, black and gold letters and strapped over a shoulder stooped from 35 years of cutting timber on riverbanks.
His hearing is slightly impaired from the chainsaws he’s carried as close and as often as a guitar. But hearing his introduction loud and clear, Leo spins as if released, waving with tenacious energy at the large crowd, proudly marching front and centre, as if on fire, shouting back, “I’m glad to be here on this day, but this is only the beginning.”
The audience reacted the same way as they did a few weeks earlier in France, Italy and Switzerland and a few days later at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival – joyfully soaking up something primal, someone’s sheer fun and singular charisma, witnessing what everyone assumed was extinct, knowing that what they were experiencing will never pass this way again.
Over the course of half a dozen interviews – in a summer jam-packed with music and chats with folks who make it – helped out by the manager who is a big part of the story, translating the drawl and incomprehensible snippets, I pieced together some of the life of of Leo “Bud” Welch.
Born in Sabougla (pronounced shah-boog-lah), Mississippi in 1932. Raised with four brothers and seven sisters in unincorporated Calhoun County, home for his entire life. “Nothing but a two-store spot, wasn’t even a post office, no law in town, all just country people and my home in the middle of a field somewhere,” he recalled.
“My cousin R.C. saved up seven dollars for a mail-order guitar when I was 12 years-old and I walked to get it at the nearest post office. I was told not to mess with it, but R.C. took to courtin,’ we called it. I started wailin’ and bangin’ on it and listening to all kind of music on the radio. By the time he caught me, he said, ‘OK, you got better than me.’
“When I got big enough, we’d play house parties and three-day picnics with ball games out in the woods. I’d have to walk, sling my guitar over my back and down the road I’d go. People would drop nickels, dimes and quarters in my pockets and even in the hole in my guitar. I’d get home and have to shake all the money out.”
He settled in Bruce – named for E.L. Bruce, the hardwood magnate – which boasts “Where Money Grows in Trees and Hopes and Dreams Never Die.” The Mississippi town of 2,000 has seven mills and runs on their shift whistles. The nearest interstate (I-55) is 20 miles away, the closest city – Elvis’ hometown of Tupelo – lies 30 miles northeast. Most maps can’t find it.
Of raising his family of four, Leo says, “I run the chains, cut timber. Told my wife if I had a dollar for every tree I trimmed off, I’d be a millionaire today. Called myself a one-man band, the one-man saw, cut timber for 35 year, goin’ down there Monday to Friday. We couldn’t see when we’d go and we couldn’t see when we’d come back, worked from dark to dark. In between, I cut cotton and corn for 50 cents or a dollar a day.”
He couldn’t afford bus fare for an audition in Memphis with B.B. King and couldn’t stray far or play late-night bars. And too tired from work, he took to playing in churches. Saturday night music on Sunday. “When the preacher visited another place, me, my sister and my sister-in-law – I called them the Sabougla Voices – would go along,” he remembered.
Enter Vencie Varnado who had known Leo all his life. He retired back home from a career in the military and began pestering Welch to make a record. But an untrusting Leo had heard it all before. So Vencie hired him to play at this 50th birthday party and secretly taped a few minutes on his cell phone. Varnado emailed it to Fat Possum Records, which had specialized in undiscovered, authentic blues artists, until six years ago when they couldn’t find any more. Within a month, 10 tracks of real-as-real-gets foot-stomping hill country gospel, “Leo Welch: Sabougla Voices” was released on the subsidiary, Big Legal Mess, featuring all-star local musicians.
It caught the ear of National Public Radio and other media, blues promoters in Europe and filmmakers who hired him to work with Ryan Gosling on a shoot in New Orleans.“Long as Leo’s happy, that’s what counts,” says fiercely dedicated Vencie, whom Welch has nicknamed “Big Money.” He’s the last traditional bluesman, the last tree in a stand of cut timber. Helpin’ is my way of giving back.”
“Don’t nothing get old but clothes and you wash, starch and iron them and they new again,” says Leo. “I just play like I play. I’m not trying to be anybody else. I give all the credit to Big Money. He’s my backbone. Now I’m hoping to get a place bigger than one room and enough closet for my clothes.
“I’m goin’ to make a blues record when I get back home from playing in Berlin, Germany. Blues has a feeling just like gospel, but they don’t have a book like the Bible. It’s just different words. Blues is just explaining about life. Life on this Earth,” he adds.
“Hey Bruce, you got the same name as my home. You tell everyone to believe something good and bigger than themelves,” concluded Leo “Bud” Welch. “Never ‘give up. I’m enjoying the best I ever enjoyed in my life.”
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. firstname.lastname@example.org