At the ripe age of 81, most of us sit back and relax. Not so blues and gospel musician Leo Welch from Bruce in northeast Mississippi. He just released his very first album.
Good things come to those who wait, but 81 years is a long time by any standard. Leo Welch’s first recording, authentic Mississippi gospel blues with a hill country bent just hit the market this week. It’s produced by the label Big Legal Mess, an imprint of Oxford-based Fat Possum Records.
But things nearly went astray. Bruce Watson is the owner of Big Legal Mess.
“His manager called the office and, you know, said, ‘I got a blues guy.’ And basically one of the interns was like, ‘Well, we don’t really do Blues anymore.’ ‘Cause we really don’t.”
The reason for that is simple.
“You know all the blues guys… we worked with the best of the blues guys in this area and there’s just… all of them a dead basically. There’s not anymore left. And I really thought we’d never make another blues record. And, you know, he showed up in my office and it was like, ‘Yeah, we’re making another blues record.’ “
Watson signed the octogenarian on the spot.
The slim, slightly stooped Welch is somewhat hard of hearing. Decades as a logger working with a chainsaw have taken its toll.
"What took me so long? I had nobody depending on going out there and getting me started. I just played around for fun, played for family and friends, at picnics," Welch says. "Couldn’t get nobody -- get a helping hand.”
Originally, the African American picked up his first guitar in his teens, which belonged to his cousin. He and the cousin’s younger brother were dying to give it a try.
“He wouldn’t let us mess with it. But when he’d go out somewhere.. he was older. He’d go out…. Well, in them days they’d call, most people called it ‘go out courtin’ – went out to see his girl," Welch laughs. "He called it courtin’. And when he’d go out first thing we’d do, finally get our time, we’d grab that guitar. And go wailing on it, banging on it.”
Over the years, Welch played in several small bands. He tried to get work with better-known musicians but in the end the economic reality of having to feed four kids always caught up with him and he never quit his day job. Money was tight. In the mid 80s he joined the church and started playing gospel music. Now, with the first album under his belt -- titled Leo Welch Sabougla Voices -- and a packed touring schedule across and beyond the state, the old man is talking change. He wants to find a bigger place to live so he can finally hang up his clothes in a larger closet, he says.
“All of a sudden there’s more money I ever made in my life. I used to work for a dollar a day," Welch recalls. "Fifty cents all day long on a farm.”
Is he any good? Jake Fussell, an Oxford-based musician who writes about music, says, "definitely!"
“He’s great. I really think he’s an exciting artist and that he’s versatile. You know he has his blues act but he also has his gospel songs, which is what this particular record is focusing on," Fussell says. "He’s a fun performer. He’s really a very active and charismatic performer. He’s a real trip. I like to see him.”
Meanwhile Welch isn’t resting on his laurels. If you have to wait 81 years for your first record you can’t afford to take it slow. Time is simply not on your side. Already, the label has started producing his next album and hopes to release it this fall.
Maybe, good things really do come to those who wait.
Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.