Mississippi bluesman Leo Bud Welch was in no rush to start his recording career. Welch’s 2014 debut, Sabougla Voices, on the Fat Possum subsidiary Big Legal Mess, came out when he was 81. Welch had picked cotton and worked as a lumberjack for most of his life, playing in church and in local juke joints around his Sabougla, Mississippi, hometown.
Welch was plucked from obscurity by Gulf war vet Venice Varnado, who as a teen had heard Welch play at his family’s juke joint. After he got out of the service, Varnado, who would become Welch’s manager and be instrumental in getting Welch booked globally, invited Welch to play for his birthday party, filmed the performance, and sent it to Fat Possum owner Bruce Watson. That resulted in the gospel/blues compilation Sabougla Voices. He followed that up a year later with 2015’s I Don’t Prefer No Blues, the title referring to a comment his preacher made when he discovered Welch was going to record a blues album.
Watson introduced Welch’s music to Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who had also debuted on Fat Possum with his band. Auerbach produced and played on what would be Welch’s final album, Angels In Heaven Done Signed My Name, cutting 30 songs that Welch had played in church all his life.
Only 10 made the final cut, but these raw and powerful creations will move even the most unrepentant sinner, slapping you upside the head with the crusty power and glory of Welch’s emotional delivery.
Ry Cooder’s version of “Jesus Is on the Main Line” from 1974’s Paradise and Lunch set the bar pretty high, but Welch’s funky version is just as memorable. Sounding like a New Orleans brass band pounding out ’70s soul with a choir marching alongside adding celestial undertones, Welch grinds out the lyrics, voice crackling with age and emotion like static from a barely tuned-in 1950s-era border radio station. Welch’s guitar playing is strange and wonderful, resulting in an interlude midway through the cut like the Eagles dropped in for a few bars before Richard Swift’s big bass drum puts it back out on the Big Easy streets.
Sacred steel purveyors the Campbell Brothers released a memorable version of “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” with a late night cabaret feel that morphs into a joyful gallop by the end on 2005’s John Medeski-produced Can You Feel It. Welch’s sounds more like Albert King’s take on “Born Under A Bad Sign,” a lurking, hulking, sacred threat to the Prince of Darkness and his sinful antics.
“I Come to Praise His Name” has a Mississippi Hill Country feel, a droning, call-and-response rural hymn punched up by Welch’s psychedelic guitar riffs and Swift’s street parade bass drum thunder.
He calls it “Let It Shine,” but Welch’s treatment of “This Little Light of Mine” is a wonderful mass of confusement that somehow holds together, a syncopated strut that can’t decide if it’s mournfully going to the graveyard or coming back in celebration. Once again, Welch’s guitar provides an unearthly accompaniment that sounds like acid country licks chucked into a passing second line parade by a bystander.
“I Wanna Die Easy” is more of a demand than a plea, a big foot stomp with juicy juke-joint guitar licks dripping from the walls.
It’s unclear if Welch knew at this point that the angels in heaven had indeed already done signed his name, and would come for him only four years after his professional debut. But regardless of whether he was trying to curry favor with his heavenly hosts in advance, it’s still a proud shout-out, a heartfelt thank-you note to the power behind the music that sustained him throughout his life.