There are several tangible ways for an artist to know that they’ve ‘made it.’
There could be the big new car in the driveway of the big new house.
There could be stacks of cash lining the inside of a bank vault.
They could even have their face plastered on every channel of every television set all across the nation.
But there are also other ways for an artist to know that they’ve made their way to the big time.
Consider what happened after a recent concert appearance by one of the hottest new blues acts on the scene – 83-year-old Leo Bud Welch.
“One lady asked Leo to sign her breast and he did and then they (other women) formed a line and I had to step in and get them stopped, because they were pulling them out and lining up for him to sign them,” said Welch’s manager, Vencie Varnado. “I had to ask them to stop the line.”
Much to his client’s regret, no doubt.
“Yeah, that was a good thing that happened to me. They were pullin’ ’em out for me to sign ‘Leo Bud Welch’ on. We old folks call that on their titties,” laughed Welch.
As one might imagine, based solely on that tale alone, things have been going rather magnificently for the Mississippi-based bluesman these days.
“It’s been great so far; everything’s been going great. Some shows don’t go as good as others, because everything don’t work exactly like you want it every time,” he said. “But as long as I’m out there, I’d say we’re doing great.”
Welch has not only been burning up bandstands all across parts known and unknown for the past year, but he also made his big-screen debut in 2015 in the movie Mississippi Grind. The film – starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn – is about a road trip through the south and not only features an original tune by Welch, but it also contains a cameo by him playing the song in a Memphis-based club.
“The way that came about is they were looking for an artist to perform live in a scene in a blues club in Memphis. Some of the people involved in producing and directing the film were familiar with Leo’s record, Sabougla Voices, and they really liked the tempo of “Praise His Name.” But they wanted a more blues-like song with the same tempo,” Varnado said. “They wanted it (the song) to be about an unknown woman that a man was attracted to. They gave Leo the idea and then he wrote the song, “I Don’t Know Her Name.” That’s how he came about being selected to be in that particular scene. Jimbo Mathus is on drums and Stu Cole is on bass.”
The cool thing about the song is the way that it went from an idea in the producer’s head on to Welch and then out as a finished product in less time than it takes to bake a cake.
“Me and Bruce Watson (head honcho of Big Legal Mess Records) and them all got together and came up with that song … they want to put that all on me, but we all came up with that song together,” Welch said. “And it didn’t take very long (to write the song).”
While he doesn’t really sit down and have what might be described as a ‘writing session,’ Welch does keep a catalog of bits and pieces – and sometimes fully formed songs – in his mind, ready to be called on when the occasion rises.
“It doesn’t take me but about two days to write two songs. The way I write ’em is as I play ’em. I don’t never just sit down and write songs,” he said. “I write ’em in my head … I keep them all in my mind. I keep them up there and I know where they’re at when I need one. I have the words and then I translate them into my music. I don’t try to be like nobody else. I try to be like Leo Bud Welch. I let my fingers do the walkin’ and the strings do the talkin.'”
His first album – the afore-mentioned Sabougla Voices (Big Legal Mess Records) hit the world like a bolt out of the blue and easily found its way onto just about every ‘best of’ list in 2014. That record was rife with down-and-dirty blues riffs, but at its heart was very much a core of gospel and church-related themes, making it one fascinating listen. The follow-up, I Don’t Prefer No Blues largely takes off where Sabougla Voices left off, although many of the traces of gospel are missing off it.
“I think that was Bruce Watson’s idea (to follow up the gospel album with more of a blues-based record). He was the one that caused that. He wanted to do a gospel record first, and after we done that, we did the blues one,” said Welch. “I was talking to Vencie and told him that I told my pastor (at Welch’s church) that I was going to go out and play me some blues. He (the pastor) said, ‘I don’t prefer no blues.’ Well, they took the name of the album from that … I Don’t Prefer No Blues … that’s how that idea came up. So one of my albums is gospel and the other one is blues.”
Welch’s path to stardom is vastly different than the way than most of today’s ‘media darlings’ obtained their moment in the sun. In 2015, it’s not uncommon for a rash of 8- or 9-yar-olds to become the next biggest thing going, thanks to a 10-second clip on YouTube. But while Welch has had oodles of talent and skill on his side for several decades, the one thing he never had going for him until recently was a bit of money and a bit of guidance. Those are the two main reasons that he didn’t cut his first album until he was 81-years-old.
“I didn’t have nobody helping me (until he met Varnado). You know, it takes money to make money and I didn’t have none,” Welch said. “I met Vencie and he said he’d help me with the money and put me in front of all kinds of people all across the world. That’s what got us on the road today.”
It wasn’t like Varnado had any kind of a master plan in place when he met Welch for the first time. No, the origin of their partnership is more humble, more organic than that, as Varnado explains.
“I retired from the Army in 2011 and my son – who was about 15 – was interested in playing the guitar. I wanted him to learn from the old guys before he learned the way the book says to play. I had known Leo my whole entire life, but had never heard him play until my birthday in 2013,” he said. “I’d always heard people talk about it (Welch playing), so I took my son by there to meet him and to get Leo to play something so I could record him and get something on my computer. It took me about two years to convince Leo to play something for me and then I paid him to play my 50th birthday party.”
That birthday gig is really what led to Welch’s coming out and first real recorded output.
“I secretly recorded Leo at my party and I called up Fat Possum (Records) and told them I had something from an 81-year-old blues artist they might be interested in. There was this intern that answered the phone and he said they really didn’t do blues anymore, so I left all my contact information with him,” Varnado said. “Within three minutes of me hanging up, Bruce Watson called me back. I learned later on that he didn’t call me back to be friendly; he said they always get a lot of crazy calls. But because of my persistency, he invited me by his office that day and he watched a couple of minutes of the video (from the birthday party). Then he asked me if I could get Leo to come in the office with his amp and guitar. I told Bruce that it had taken two years to get this far, but I’d see what I could do. Leo didn’t have a way to get to the office, so I drove down and picked him and his guitar and amp up and took him there. He played about three songs and Bruce asked him had he ever recorded? Leo said ‘no’ and Bruce asked him if he was interested in it and Leo said ‘yes.'”
After that, a recording session was scheduled for two weeks later.
“About three or four sessions later, Sabougla Voices is a result of that,” Varnado said. “That’s the true story of how he came to record his first album at 81.”
Even though he’s played music since he was a teenager, this is the first time that Welch has ever really done it for reasons other than it being a pastime, or to just entertain people around his hometown or church. Prior to that, Welch’s life was filled with plenty of long days stuffed to the gills with plenty of hard labor.
“I worked on a farm all my life and then I cut trees for 35 years … I worked for a dollar a day and then at the end of the week, you ain’t got nothin’ but five dollars. I plowed mules in all the dust and stuff and then I ran a chain saw, cuttin’ trees for 35 years, “said Welch. “All that noise up in my ears … a lot of times I have a hard time understanding people’s last words (at the end of a sentence) and I say that’s cause I ran a chain saw all those years. You know what kind of a noise that is, don’t you? But I’ve been retired since ’95. I’ve been looking for this opportunity (to get out and play music) and I’m happy it came along.”
Instead of dusty run-down logging camps, Welch now gets to spend his time on stages all over the world, playing his unique brand of the blues. While it might have taken longer to reach this point in his life than he would have originally liked to, Welch still says that he knew someday, somehow, he’d be doing just what he’s doing in 2015. After all, he was once offered an audition with B.B. King (back in the late ’40s), but couldn’t afford the bus fare it took to get from his home to Memphis.
“I’ve been to France and Germany and all over. And Vencie is responsible for all that happening … praise his name! But I always had no doubt about it (making it by playing music). I always had that in my mind,” he said. “I knew that someday somebody would listen to me and people all over the world would like me. Things have worked out just right – I’m doing what I love to do.”
He hasn’t had to work very hard at convincing audiences that he’s a real-deal bluesman – heck, he’s one of the oldest bluesmen currently playing the blues. But he’s had to work a little harder at getting his pastor and some of his congregation to see there’s nothing sinister or evil about playing the blues..
” A lot of people ask me, ‘How do you sing the old blues and gospel, too? That’s devil’s money.’ But then when you see them, they be wantin’ some of that devil’s money,” Welch said. “After the album (I Don’t Prefer No Blues) I was sittin’ in the church and he (the pastor) came up and said, ‘You put my name on that album?’ I think he was wanting to make a big thing out of it. I said, ‘No, I didn’t, but they (Welch’s management team) did.’ It wasn’t his name, but it was him sayin’ ‘I don’t prefer no blues.’ Well, then he said, ‘You owe me some money.’ See, he’d didn’t want no blues, but he wanted money from the blues. A lot of them hollar about devil’s money, but there ain’t nothin’ they can do about it. You know, there’s a lot of people that go to church that love the blues. All those songs (both blues and gospel) are about life.”
The way Welch sees it, the blues and gospel can get along just fine and real religion can often times be found outside the church, as well.
“You don’t got to go to church to have religion,” he said. “You can get religion just sittin’ in your house all day, if you want to.”
“The way I see it, music is either good or bad. I think people try to pigeon-hole music based on what artist does it, or what color the artist is. There are some songs that no one can tell me why one is gospel and one is blues. “Going Down Slow” is considered a blues song and “Your Mother Loves Her Children” is called a gospel song. Why is that? The contents of both songs are the same. One is about, ‘Hey I’ve had my fun and I’m growing old and dying and want my mother to pray for me.’ and “Your Mother Loves Her Children” is the mother reaching out to her wayward child through prayer,” he said. “One is blues and one is gospel, but there’s no difference. Just because somebody says this one’s blues and this one’s gospel, that’s the way it is. But they can’t give you an explanation why one is called blues and the other is gospel … it’s crazy to me. I’d sum it up by saying that gospel is music about your relationship with deities and blues is about your relationship with human beings.”
The late, great T-Model Ford really locked into his own sound when he had the late, great Spam backing him up on drums. The two shared an almost telekinetic sense of communication between them and rare were the times when words had to be spoken when they were up on the bandstand. It seems that Welch has found his ‘Spam’ in the form of the dynamic Ms. Dixie Street, his drummer for the past couple of years. Just like T-Model and Spam, Leo Bud Welch and Dixie Street go together better than peanut butter and jelly.
“I love the way that she beats the drums,” Welch said. “We go really good together and can work out things when we’re playin.’ If something’s not right, I can tell her and she’ll listen and there’s some things that she can tell me … I can’t tell it all. We got to listen to one another and work together to be together and that’s what we do.”
If there’s two things that Welch’s guitar sound are, they would be distinguishable and unconventional. Put it this way, just by hearing a couple of notes, it’s easy to tell that you’re listening to Leo Bud Welch play the guitar.
“I learned how to play by watching my first cousin (R.C. Welch) play. That’s how I learned when I was 15 years old. When he was big enough to go out courtin’ or whatnot, he’d tell us (Welch and his brother) to not mess with his guitar. We’d tell him OK. Well, one time we got out his guitar – we didn’t have electricity or nothin’ like that – and started ramblin’ and bangin’ around on it,” Welch said. “He came back in and slipped up on us and we had that guitar and the music goin.’ He said, ‘I thought I told you boys not to play my guitar.’ But then he said, ‘I tell you what, I ain’t gonna’ say anything else about you playin’ my guitar … ya’ll play it better than I can.’ It sounded good to him, so then I started goin’ out and playin’ out in the woods and at picnics and everybody went to sayin’ I could beat him (playing the guitar) and he got mad at me about that.”
Those looking to replicate Welch’s sound may have a hard time doing so. According to Varnado, the pink, speckled and sparkly guitar that Welch plays – emblazoned with his name plastered across the top – is a one-of-a-kind axe.
“If you’ll notice, Leo plays with a no-name guitar that I personally customized and I’m no technician. I had to learn all this stuff on the fly, in the last two-and-a-half years,” said Varnado. “That helps Leo to be able to sound like Leo.”
Another thing that helps set Welch apart on stage – aside from Dixie Street on the drums and his customized guitar – is his stage attire. He may feel more comfortable in blue jeans and a work shirt, but Welch is one bad-lookin’ cat on the bandstand, decked out in a sharkskin suit with a paisley tie and red alligator shoes.
“Well, I have to give my manager credit for that, because he suggests that I wear this, or I wear that. I said, ‘What? You tryin’ to make me look good?’ And he says, ‘I ain’t tryin’ to make you look good, I’m tryin’ to make you look your best,'” said Welch. “That’s where I got the part about being dressed real nice. If it wasn’t for that, I might be runnin’ to the shows in some ole cut-off blue jeans. Back in the old days, that’s all we’d do; run around in cut-off blue jeans. But now, you got to be clean.”
Smooth as it went, that transition from blue jean funky to slick suited sharp didn’t just occur overnight.
“What I’ve made it my business to do, is developing Leo’s brand as unique to him. I brought that along slowly, because I didn’t want him to be similar to other artists. I wanted his brand to be unique,” Varnado said. “Coming up with different outfits for different settings is one way to help me to continue to develop his brand … not to copy off any other artist or do anything that they do … but to develop Leo Bud Welch’s brand, so it’s unique to him.”
He may be into his eighth decade on this earth, but Welch has not one bit of ‘oldness’ or ‘can’t do that anymore’ about him on stage. When the music moves him, it does so literally.
“Leo plays a wireless guitar and performs with a headset (mic). That’s so that he can present like the blues guys used to do on the porch before electricity made its way to them,” said Varnado. “When Leo feels like getting up and dancing, he can do that (with the wireless rig) and never lose a beat. And when he feels like looking at a pretty lady over in the peanut gallery and singing to her, he don’t have to worry about the mic, because it’s right there with him. That way, he doesn’t drop any vocal lines.”
“You can’t wish back, but I can think back when I was young and I used to really kick it (now he performs in a chair for most of his set). But now I say I’m going to sit down before I fall down,” Welch laughed. “But yeah, that’s (getting up and dancing) all a part of my music.”
Visit Leo’s website at www.leobudwelch.com
Photos by Arnie Goodman © 2015