At age 82, bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch rocks on stage like a teenager — dancing and spinning as he beats out jagged chords and grimy solos on his pink, sparkle-covered guitar. That raw youthful energy and Welch’s old-school juke-joint jones blend full-throttle in the 10 songs on I Don’t Prefer No Blues, his second release for Fat Possum Records’ subsidiary Big Legal Mess. The album is a garage-blues manifesto that weds waves of prickly six-string distortion and gutbucket drums with Welch’s smoke-and-ash voice and mud-crusted guitar — and lives up to Fat Possum’s history of producing edgy but deeply rooted recordings by artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
I Don’t Prefer No Blues, due out March 24, 2015 on Big Legal Mess, is the follow-up to last year’s Sabougla Voices, an all-gospel disc that marked Welch’s debut as both a recording artist and a songwriter. That album was heralded as a fresh breath of rust-bearing air — a throwback to an era of rural music free from outside influences and a reminder that blues-fueled primitivism is still personified by a handful of living Southern artists.
I Don’t Prefer No Blues is what the preacher at Welch’s church said when he found out Welch was making a blues album. “Up until Sabougla Voices came out, I had only played spirituals in the church and in tents for about 50 years,” Welch explains.
But these days Welch does prefer blues. Playing blues on stage since Sabougla Voices’ release has proven transformative for the octogenarian resident of Bruce, Mississippi. He’s toured parts of the U.S. and Europe, and played for audiences of all ages at international festivals and such prestigious events as the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference in Nashville.
“I’m doing things I never thought I’d do,” Welch relates. “I never thought I’d get to play outside of Mississippi or travel to other countries. Now I’m playing for all kinds of people and seeing the world. Just so, the first time I had to go on a plane I thought they’d have to blindfold me, knock me out and tie me up to get me on board. I’m also keeping all my bills paid up to date, which I couldn’t before.”
Getting on board for his first blues album was easier. Big Legal Mess owner and house producer Bruce Watson took the wheel, steering Welch into crunching, genre-blending sonic and creative territory. “The deal I made with Leo was the first record would be gospel and the second would be blues,” Watson says. “Honestly, I was just trying to do something different than your typical blues record — trying to f–k things up a bit. I think I succeeded.”
That’s clear from the opening cut, a take on the traditional “Poor Boy.” The tune, which is the sole track produced by Mississippi neo-trad firebrand Jimbo Mathus, frames Welch’s scorched-oak singing with a rattling drum kit, upright bass, a choir and the angelic voice of Sharde Thomas — a doyenne of ancient Mississippi music who inherited the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band from her late grandfather Othar Turner. The contrast between the innocence in Thomas’ honeyed tones and the weathered experience in Welch’s woof antes up the drama that’s maintained throughout I Don’t Prefer No Blues.
Mathus also added clangorous guitar to the album. “Girl in the Holler” thrives on his and Welch’s angular, dueling riffs. And Mathus provides psychedelic fuzz for the Watson-penned “I Don’t Know Her Name,” where Welch literally barks for his would-be lady like a lusty dog.
Welch’s “So Many Turnrows” is about his many years plowing behind a mule during his youth and young manhood. “I grew up on a farm and had to walk two miles to school in the rain and mud,” he recounts. “Most of the time we didn’t have no money from March to November, when the crops came in, but I made it through eighth grade and then I started plowing mule and hoeing cotton.” Welch worked as a logger for the 35 years before he retired in 1995. “I stood next to that chain saw all day, so that’s why I don’t hear too good.”
“Playing guitar is my favorite ‘like,’ ” Welch says. “I learned by hearing records by Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters … and I saw them when they came through Bruce. I once even had a chance to audition for B.B. King’s band, but I didn’t have the bus fare to get to Memphis.”
“Right now is a great point in my life,” Welch continues. “I’m doing things I’ve never been able to do before and I feel good doing them at an age when a lot of people are dead. So as long as I can I want to go around the world trying to send satisfaction to people. Doing that is a great feeling to me.”