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Published: 2014/01/11
by Brian Robbins

Leo Welch
Sabougla Voices

Big Legal Mess

Let’s ignore the story behind Leo Welch’s Sabougla Voices album for a moment and just talk about the tunes and nothing but the tunes. Here’s the deal, folks: if you like your blues raw and real and served up Mississippi downhome-style – slathered with gospel sauce – then you’re going to love this album.

That’s all you really need to know about Sabougla Voices – and reason enough to lay hands to a copy of it.

Of course, it’s also pretty darn cool that Mr. Welch’s backing band for this album is some kind of amazing all-star lineup of Mississippi-rooted players: ol’ Jimbo Mathus is right there on guitar with his Tri-State Coalition bandmate Eric Carlton on keys; Andrew Bryant of the Water Liars plays drums and organ; we have The Monkeygrass Jug Band’s Bronson Tew tag-teaming on bass with Matt Patton of the Dexateens and Drive-By Truckers (Patton also plays some guitar); and the sweet background vocals of Martha and Laverne Conley (the Sabougla Voices) tie it all together in the nicest of ways.

And then, atop all of that is the fact – the true, believe-it-or-not fact – that Leo Welch is 81 years old as his recorded debut hits the streets. No, I didn’t transpose the numbers; that’s an 8 and a 1 – 81. (He’ll be 82 in March, as a matter of fact). The reality and soul that come through in tunes such as the lay-it-out-there-pure-and-simple “Mother Loves Her Children” or the slap-knee piledriver groove of “His Holy Name” is the product of a lifetime of back-breaking work in the woods and on the farms around his Mississippi home. Ain’t nobody needs to tell Leo Welch to make his music sound a certain way, folks – he’s lived what he sings.

Welch has been a guitar picker and singer since he was little (he plays harmonica and fiddle as well). Rather than hit the local Mississippi Country juke joints when he reached adulthood, Welch chose to play his bluesy gospel/gospel-based blues in the area’s churches (when he wasn’t out sweating in the woods with a logging crew, manhandling a chain saw). As he tells it, he “never had nobody to help me” take his music any further than Sunday services and neighborhood picnics and parties. It was a friend of Welch’s – Vencie Varando – who convinced him to reach out to local indie label Big Legal Mess after hearing Welch play. (Varando, who’s “only” in his 50s says he never heard Welch play until the spring of last year.) Label owner Bruce Watson overheard an intern informing a caller, “We really don’t do blues here anymore” – luckily, Watson interrupted the conversation and, upon hearing Welch’s story, invited him in to play some tunes. As soon as Watson heard Welch’s music, he was a goner: the sessions for Sabougla Voices followed.

Don’t be thinking that the holy presence in this music prevents it from making you want to shake your butt, my friends. Welch and his gang might be singing about “the hands of the Lord” on “Somebody Touched Me” but that’s one big-bottomed, rump-bumping groove underneath, fo’ sho’. You may know “Praise His Name” as a Robert Randolph rave-up; Welch lays it down all funky and powerful while the Sabougla Voices seal the deal with some cool vocal punctuations. True, tunes such as “You Can’t Hurry God” and “Praying Time” carry a Sunday morning message, but the delivery will lay your hair back and part it down the middle as surely as any stomping blues you’ll ever hear.

Dig that raspy-toned guitar that winds itself around Welch’s voice on “A Long Journey”; feel the bass wump that shakes the rafters of “Take Care Of Me Lord”. “Me And My Lord” and “The Lord Will Make A Way” is just Welch and his acoustic, taking it home with one last shot of bluesy conviction.

Church is where you find it, folks – or it finds you. Leo Welch’s church on Sabougla Voices happens to be loaded with a big ol’ backbeat and reeking of hot tube amps. Blasphemy? Hardly. Rapture is more like it.

When you can shake it down like this at the age of 81, somebody up there must feel like you’re doing a good thing. Turn it up and partake, my friends.


Brian Robbins stands in the pulpit over at

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