The Juke-Joint Gospel of Leo Welch
Leo Welch – Sabougla Voices (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum)
Blues is for Saturday nights, gospel is for Sunday mornings, and you should never mix the two. That’s the conventional wisdom surrounding two of American music’s most venerable genres.
Leo “Bud” Welch dispels such thinking on Sabougla Voices, his debut album for Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess imprint. The 81-year-old singer-guitarist from Bruce, Mississippi (population, 2,097) delivers a big messy racket of a blues album with one significant twist: the lyrics come from life’s sacred side. From the rough-and-tumble opener, “Praise His Name,” it’s clear that Welch will be taking us on an unconventional musical journey. While the incendiary guitar sound is gritty and uncompromising, the words sung by Welch are unadulterated gospel, spiritually charged and filled with the emotion and heartfelt commitment of a true believer. This is the case throughout the album, as Welch and producer Bruce Watson stir up a stripped-down, gospel-blues brew that can best be described as down-home church-wrecking music. Yet while there’s plenty of sizzling guitar on Sabougla Voices, it quickly becomes apparent that Welch is no one-trick pony. From boisterous, electrified numbers like “Take Care of Me Lord” and “Praying Time” to acoustic tunes like “Mother Loves Her Children” and the Delta Blues-inspired “Me and My Lord,” Welch runs a gamut of styles and emotions. Occasional female backing voices add to the gospel fervor of the proceedings, while Welch’s own effectively understated vocals aim straight for the heart.
Welch’s life story, told in liner notes penned by WFMU’s Kevin Nutt, is similar to the classic blues rediscoveries of the 1960s with one major difference: Welch never had the opportunity to record. Born in Sablougla, Miss., in 1932, he began playing music when he and a cousin took to the guitar of an older cousin quicker than its owner. He was soon picking out tunes he heard on the radio for family and friends, adding harmonica and fiddle along the way. Playing primarily a blues-based repertoire, Welch on several occasions came to the attention of professional musicians, even receiving an offer to audition for B.B. King (he turned it down because he couldn’t afford to travel to Memphis). When other planned auditions failed to materialize, he fell into a life of logging with his chainsaw and working on a local farm. Welch continued to play music, expanding his repertoire to include gospel material. By 1975 he had dedicated his life to the church. Continuing to play his music in the vast network of churches around Mississippi, he found himself lost in the musical shuffle. While music obsessives continued to canvass the region’s juke joints seeking out new discoveries, church musicians like Welch fell beneath the radar. It was only via a phone call Welch placed to Big Legal Mess, and a subsequent audition, that he wound up making Sabougla Voices.
Given Fat Possum’s blues heritage, Big Legal Mess is the perfect home for Welch’s album. It’s very much in line with Fat Possum blues recordings by the likes of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and T-Model Ford, while at the same time providing a link to the label’s sacred releases by Reverend John Wilkins and Bishop Manning and the Manning Family. It’s great stuff, and not just for an 81-year-old but for anyone. Blues and gospel fans alike should be rejoicing over this one, as should fans of good music in general.