I had the great fortune to sit back stage, side stage and even on stage with Leo “Bud” Welch at various Blues shows he’s performed over the past dozen years in places like Red’s, Po Monkeys, and Ground Zero to name just a few. But the very first time I actually ever heard him play live, he was sitting in my office.
I only knew Bud at the time as the nice man I visited with almost every day at the post office. It wasn’t for months that I discovered he was playing, singing and hosting a gospel show on the Bruce TV station W07BN. The next day I saw him at the post office and asked if he’d come by and visit. He did, with guitar in hand, which led to him letting his “fingers do the walkin’ and his guitar do the talkin’,” as he was prone to say.
It also led to friendship, admiration and respect.
I wrote my first story on Bud’s lifelong love of music – all kinds of music – nearly 20 years ago. He talked about how he grew up in the 1930s in a family of 12 children in the Sabougla area. He played his first guitar at age 12. It belonged to his cousin R.C. Welch who warned him to stay away from it, so Bud sneaked around and taught himself to play on it while his cousin was away.
Among the earliest songs he recalled playing was “Navajo Trail” after seeing Roy Rogers play it in an old Western. His first time to play on stage was at Sabougla Grammar School and he would later become a fixture in area churches. While he loved to sing, he was always fascinated by the Blues.
“I believe in the Lord, but the Blues speaks to life, too,” he told me in our first interview. “Blues has a feeling just like Gospel. They just don’t have a book (the Bible).”
His early Blues playing days were at Otis McCain’s 3-day picnic in the Horsepen Community, a few juke joints around Grenada and the Cotton Bowl and Blue Flame in Carroll County.
He moved to Bruce as a teen to find work in the sawmill industry, but still played frequently in front of local cafes where people would drop change in the hole of his guitar.
Through the years, Bud had opportunities to sit in with Blues legends John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and B.B. King, but he never found acclaim for himself, just the reality of getting back to cutting wood to earn a living and playing music when he could.
Bud was almost 80 when Calhoun City native Vencie Varnado entered the picture. It was through Vencie’s perseverance that Bud began getting the attention he had long deserved for his musical talents.
Bud had reached his 80s and was suddenly in demand all over the country and the world. I would routinely receive photo requests from newspapers throughout the U.S. and Europe doing profiles on this true life Bluesman from Bruce, Mississippi.
He became a staple of the Mississippi Tourism Divisions advertising campaign. While we were still bumping into Bud at the post office or outside the Piggly Wiggly, the rest of the country was seeing him on their TV screen inviting them to Mississippi.
He was featured in multiple films and two documentaries specifically about him. Journalists from all over would come to Bruce to conduct interviews on his tiny front porch.
Bud’s incredible success helped all of Calhoun County’s wonderful music earn recognition with a long sought after Mississippi Blues Trail Marker on the Bruce Square. I’ve visited with people from six different countries already passing through just to see the marker. A van filled with three couples from Belgium starting quizzing me about what he was like and I suggested let’s go over to the house and see if he’s home. He was, doing another interview, and they were thrilled beyond belief to meet him.
As I thanked them and told Bud I needed to get back to work, he told me to grab his guitar so he could play these folks something. I drove away with him playing, singing and dancing to a lot of smiling faces.
It’s what I loved best about Bud. He didn’t care who you were. He didn’t see anybody as any better or worse. He had a musical gift and he just wanted to share it with whomever was interested.
He did that and then some, and we’re all better off for it today.