The Story of Leo “Bud” Welch by Wolfgang Almer - Interview with the legend, the manager and the filmmaker

"I am Leo Bud Welch people say I am a bluesman I was born in the blues 1932"

The Story of Bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch

Leo “Bud” Welch Sr. was born in Sabougla, Mississippi in 1932. Bud picked up a guitar for the first time in 1945. Bud and a cousin would sneak and play the guitar while the actual owner of the guitar (Bud’s older cousin) was away working. As he became confident in his ability to play guitar, Bud was caught red handed by the owner of the guitar, playing the forbidden to touch instrument. Bud’s older cousin was so impressed with his playing that he gave Bud free reign to continue playing the guitar. By 1947 at age 15, Bud could play well enough to perform publically and garnered the blessing of many elder guitar players. Bud was offered an audition by BB King but could not afford the trip to Memphis. Bud played the Blues continuously until 1975, at that time he converted to playing mostly Gospel, with the Sabougla Voices, which consisted of his sister and a sister-in-law. Bud also played with the Skuna Valley Male Chorus. Bud earned his living by carrying a chain saw up and down the hills and hollows of North Mississippi, logging for 35 years. Leo’s debut album Sabougla Voices was released January 7, 2014 just two months before his 82nd birthday. 

Wolfgang Almer is the man who came up with the idea for a documentary movie about Leo “Bud” Welch. He is the Driving Force behind this project and will be Director and Producer of the movie. He has 17 years of experience in music, event and multimedia work and has founded four companies on the way. He has discovered, supported and promoted many award-winning artists in his home country Austria and currently works as freelance curator and artistic director of a big open air festival called LINZFEST. Wolfgang was the first to invite Leo “Bud” Welch to Europe to play on 2014′s LINZFEST – that’s where this whole thing started. Wolfgang holds a Master’s degree in Film & TV-Production and in Business Administration and has done minor work as actor, producer, location scout and consultant on local film productions. Acknowledging that his experiences as a film director are as yet not sufficient, he has surrounded himself with professionals to make sure the Leo “Bud” Welch Documentary will do our man justice. His film production company Let’s Make This Happen Productions is in the founding stages right now. The bluesman Leo "Bud" Welch, his manager Vencie Varnado and Wolfgang Almer talks about the movie and the Blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How started the thought of documentary movie about The Story of Leo “Bud” Welch?

Wolfgang: I am artistic director of a rather big open air festival called LINZFEST in Linz/Austria. This festival has a topic every year, and 2014, the topic was OLD IS THE NEW NEW. So we were looking for old but still relevant music, for new music based on old music and also for really old artists. On this quest, I remembered Cedell Davies who I saw at a club across the corner from where I live in Vienna some time back. Since I couldn’t find a booking agency, I contacted his lable Fat Possum. And the guys from Fat Possum told me that Cedell is available, but there’s this other guy,  Leo Welch. He has never really left Mississippi, but he has a new album coming out, and maybe he’d be up to play at our festival. So I contacted his manager Vencie Varnado and we very quickly came to an agreement to do this.

His shows at our festival were great (he played three shows, one of them until 1:30 in the morning, rocking a small clubs like it has never been rocked before), and I was really impressed by his energy and by his quality as a performer. But I still had no thought of making a movie about him.

However, I started to read his story after the festival. I read about the cotton picking, the lumber jacking, his hard and rather poor life and how he had only started out as a professional musician right now, at age 81. I thought, wow, what a story. And that’s when it hit me – we have to make a movie about this guy. So I opened my computer and wanted to contact Vencie to ask him about this idea, and the second I opened my computer Vencie contacted me totally out of the blue to ask me how I was. This seemed like a very good omen to me. We have to do this!

"One thing I learned from Leo is that life is never over, that you can always start new things, no matter how old you are or how difficult the situation might be." (Photo: Leo "Bud" Welch & Wolfgang Almer)

Do you think that the Blues & Gospel comes from the heart, the brain or the soul and why?

Leo: Heart and soul because the brain thinks bad thoughts !

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN? What means to be “Bluesman”?

Leo: I am Leo Bud Welch people say I am a bluesman I was born in the blues 1932...

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

Vencie: Blues is part of my culture and blues is a way of expressing the highs and lows of life through song.

Wolfgang: I’ve discovered the Blues when I was something like 18 years old, so about 20 years ago. It started with a Levis commercial in the early 90s that had Muddy Water’s Mannish Boy as a soundtrack. Me and my best buddie, we totally fell into this song and started digging for more blues, and we found out that a super market close by had but one record shelve with nothing but blues records. So we bought it all up over time – John Lee Hooker, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, … all of them, and we totally fell into it. It was wonderful. But then, somehow Grunge started to happen for me and then all the other music that I’ve learned to love popped up to me, and I kind of forgot about the Blues. It’s really wonderful that the Blues is coming back to me now with this project. I guess what I can learn from the Blues is that authenticity is really the key to good music. A guy like Leo who has played the Blues his whole life, not for commercial reasons but just for himself can easily blow away any big, perfectly produced music project a record company could think of. 

How important was the blues in your life? When was your first desire to become involved with the blues?

Vencie: The blues is as much a part of my life as my name is. The blues was the first music that I heard.

"For me on the road with Leo is ongoing we work through every situation. Leo believes God controls all so he does advise beyond that." (Photo: Leo "Bud" Welch & Vencie Varnado)

How do you describe and what characterize Leo Bud Welch as personality, collaborator and friend?

Vencie: Leo is one of a simple life. He believes GOD controls everything!

Which was the best and worst moment on the road with Leo? What is the best advice ever given you?

Vencie: For me on the road with Leo is ongoing we work through every situation. Leo believes God controls all so he does advise beyond that.

Are there any memories from Leo which you’d like to share with us? What is the best advice ever given you?

Wolfgang: I haven’t really spent a lot of time with Leo yet because I just met him at those 3 festival days and then mainly communicated with his manager Vencie, but one thing I learned from Leo is that life is never over, that you can always start new things, no matter how old you are or how difficult the situation might be. So we all should always stay curious, stay foolish and open for everything. Life is not that difficult. You just do what you do, or, as Leo puts it: I don’t know what you’ve come to do – I’ve come to kneel and pray.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Southern folklore of past and how has changed over the years?

Vencie: I spent 29 years in the army and abroad.

Leo: Nothing...!

How does the Southern culture affect your mood and inspiration? What characterize the Southern culture?

Leo: Hard work !!!

"The world and the society where blues developed as a way to cope with segregation and other injustices and difficulties is – luckily – not existing anymore, so the authenticity is simply not possible anymore. And without authenticity, the blues might lose what it’s all about."

Which is the relationship of Southern folklore and blues with the new generation?

Leo: I don’t know...

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be “Bluesman”?

Vencie: Ones life has to mirror the music.

Leo: It is about life

Why did you think that the Blues culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

Vencie: It deals with life issues!

Wolfgang: It’s – again – authenticity. We’re all looking for real things, and in our times, real things are getting rare. Everything is made for us to consume, very few things are made just for the sake of doing it. Now if somebody like Leo comes across, we all just have to love him because he’s so real, he gets us in touch with life itself.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from Leo Bud Welch?

Wolfgang: While researching, I stumbled across the following quote from Leo: “I like my electric guitar because I can cut up the volume to where I can hear it.” This is just so him, it really made me laugh.

What really touched me is the community Leo’s part of. There were so many people reaching out to help us, also very many people were contacting us to ask if we’re good people and not trying to take advantage of Leo (we’re of course good people – but his manager Vencie would nobody take advantage of Leo anyway). This sounds like a really strong and good community. 

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

Leo: Nothing !!

"A guy like Leo who has played the Blues his whole life, not for commercial reasons but just for himself can easily blow away any big, perfectly produced music project a record company could think of."

(Photo: Leo "Bud" Welch)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Blues circuits?

Vencie: The notoriety that Leo is getting...

Leo: Getting notice!!!

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what memorabilia would you put in?

Vencie: Here!!

Wolfgang: In terms of blues, I would love to see Muddy Waters live, so probably go back some 50 years. But generally, I’m more of future guy – so I’d probably use the time machine to go forward, maybe see our movie in a cinema in about a year or two.

How does Southern culture and music affect your mood and inspiration?

Vencie: It has molded me into the person that I am today.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Wolfgang: Today, with most of the real blues guys getting older and eventually passing away, I’m not sure if the blues that we’ve all come to love can survive in that quality. The world and the society where blues developed as a way to cope with segregation and other injustices and difficulties is – luckily – not existing anymore, so the authenticity is simply not possible anymore. And without authenticity, the blues might lose what it’s all about.

"However, I started to read his story after the festival. I read about the cotton picking, the lumber jacking, his hard and rather poor life and how he had only started out as a professional musician right now, at age 81. I thought, wow, what a story." (Photo: Wolfgang and the crew shooting at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Austria. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Wolfgang: I really can’t say a lot about that. There are a couple of quite good blues acts over here, but what’s very interesting over here is the Wienerlied, a typically Viennese music that’s very similar to the blues (and very often technically is blues) and also deals with life’s big and small problems and melanchoiies. There has been a big revival of the Wienerlied in the last couple of years with a lot of great artists like Martin Spengler & Die foischn Wiener, Die Strottern or 5/8erl in Ehren. This is very much blues music, even though it doesn’t call itself blues.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States and UK to Austria?

Wolfgang: As I said before, the Wienerlied is very similar to the blues and it very often sounds like blues music. The Viennese mentality is very often very melancholy, so it kind of connects to the blues, and that’s probably why the music is also connected. 

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