81-year-old Mississippi bluesman discovered; album coming in January

The phone rings at the Oxford, Miss.-based label Big Legal Mess. An intern tells the caller, “Oh, we don’t really do blues here anymore.” One of the company’s principals overhears this and grabs the phone. On the other end of the line is one 81-year-old Leo “Bud” Welch from Mississippi’s Calhoun County. He’d heard about the label that brought you Junior Kimbrough’s First Recordings, Jack Oblivian, Reverend John Wilkins, Water Lairs and Bishop Manning and the Manning Family, and he wanted to know if there’d be interest in recording his debut album of downhome gospel and blues.

It was then that Big Legal Mess’s Bruce Watson invited him to come to the office and play a few tunes. Indeed Welch was the real deal: a guitar-tearing gospel and blues singer who’d worked on a logging crew in Mississippi Hill Country’s timber industry for more than 30 years. He was signed on the spot and his debut album, Sabougla Voices, will be released on January 7, 2014 on both CD and LP. WFMU-FM alt-gospel programmer Kevin Nutt wrote liner notes.

Born in Sabougla, Miss. in 1932, Welch has lived his entire life in the area. His musical ability was spotted early (he plays harmonica and fiddle as well as guitar), but Welch played only picnics and parties. Before the liquor laws in dry Calhoun County were enforced, the town of Bruce attracted big name performers like Ike & Tina Turner and B.B. King.  Welch had the opportunity to audition for King but did not have the money for travel to Memphis at the time.

His repertoire consisted mainly of blues standards heard on Southern radio of the day. Welch loved gospel music too, especially the Fairfield Four, who he’d hear on Nashville’s clear channel WLAC-AM. He named his gospel group Leo Welch & the Rising Souls. Today he plays mostly with the Sabougla Voices and Skuna Valley Male Chorus.

Mississippi’s numerous churches full of talented musicians are often overlooked in favor of its dwindling cache of juke joints. As annotator Nutt points out, “It wouldn’t be that far from overstatement to say that any single county in Mississippi probably has more churches than the all-time sum of juke houses.” The church offered a musician like Welch to play his style, just slightly modified for the gospel.  Today he hosts the Black Gospel Express TV show, alternating Sundays on WO7BN-TV in Bruce.

Yet Welch never let the blues go. “I believe in the Lord, but the blues speaks to life too. Blues has a feeling just like gospel; they just don’t have a book (a Bible).” He proudly notes that he has never had to worry about hangovers since focusing on gospel.

As Nutt writes, “Come into this church. They won’t be any old church ladies staring you down. Despite what some folk might insist, church isn’t always under the steepled roof. Wherever you are, have a sip, tap your foot, stomp it . . . and rejoice with the Lord and Leo “Bud” Welch. Crank it.”

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