For decades, the world may not have known of Leo “Bud” Welch, but music fans in Sabougla, Mississippi most certainly did. Then again, that was the world for Welch, a chainsaw-wielding logger who put his day job to the side when he picked up his guitar and played the blues and gospel music for anyone who would listen.
“He doesn’t see it as he missed an opportunity or that the whole world didn’t see him, because as far as he’s concerned, the world knew about him,” said Welch’s friend and manager Vencie Varnado. “His world was the way he saw it.”
Since 2013, that world got a lot bigger for the now 83-year-old Welch, who just released his second album, I Don’t Prefer No Blues, in March. His first, Sabougla Voices, came out when he was 81. It’s an inspiring story on so many levels, whether you this as a talent finally being discovered in his 80s, or as one of the last true bluesmen hitting the road and exposing people to this truly American artform.
“I just love it, and I’ve been loving it all my life,” Welch said. “Music was born in my bones. A lot of my people are musicians, and all my people can sing, and I’ve been wanting to do it all my life, I just had no way of getting it out.”
If you listen to him sing and play, whether live or on record, it baffles the mind how those outside of Sabougla never heard him before. It’s not as if Welch wanted to stay as the great undiscovered bluesman, but as he admits, “I would have (done this sooner) if I had some help. I didn’t have no help. It takes money to make money. You have to have someone that paves your way too.”
Enter Varnado, who knew of Welch his entire life, but never got to see him play until 2013 due to his nearly 30 years in the military.
“I always heard people talk about him and my son was interested in playing, so I wanted my son to see him play so he could learn the way the old guys played before he went in the books and learned,” Varnado said. “It took me about two years to convince Leo to play something for me and the way I did that was I hired him to play at my 50th birthday party and I secretly videotaped him.”
Varnado, like anyone else who heard Welch, was taken in by his talent and authentic sound and wanted the rest of the world to hear it. He contacted Fat Possum Records, and owner Bruce Watson, after seeing the footage and meeting with Welch, was all in, recording the bluesman for Fat Possum subsidiary Big Legal Mess. Since then, one of music’s oldest newcomers has been a critical and popular success, which is no surprise to Varnado.
“The reaction is stunning,” he said. “We tell you that this guy is 83 years old, and people have their perception of what an 83-year-old is going to appear to be and how they’re gonna perform based on what they’ve seen in the past. Leo’s voice is as strong today as it was 60 years ago, and when he gets into his music, his dances are not as long, but when he does it, he’s doing it at a hundred percent. So when people see it, they’re impressed and they’re completely engaged.”
And musically, the education of a new generation may be as important, if not more so, than the entertainment of that generation.
“Leo still performs in a manner that’s pre-Chicago,” Varnado said. “He still performs the way the music was done on the farm before Muddy and Wolf and John Lee, before they all took it north and urbanized the music. So I think it’s important, especially for the youth, to see a living link to the music the way it was done before it was taken north.”
As for the man himself, Leo “Bud” Welch has taken his time getting to this point, but he always knew he would get here. And he’s enjoying the ride.
“I worked for a dollar a day out on the farm from sun up to sun down,” he recalled. “With music, I knew somebody would hear me, and then that would be a way in. And it’s happening now. But I had it in my mind all the time that someday I would be somebody.”
Leo “Bud” Welch plays six shows in the NY / NJ area from October 26 to October 31. He begins his stay in the area on Monday, October 26 with a gig at Rockwood Music Hall. For tickets, click here, and for more tour dates, click here