Map & Compass: Navigating nostalgia with Leo “Bud” Welch and Dee White

angels

The singer and songwriter Sam Phillips once joked that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” She was probably on to something, but two recent albums on Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound imprint offer reason to think anew about how we engage with the past. One album finds an octogenarian bluesman singing songs from his childhood, decades of lived experience instilling them with new meaning. The other finds a 20-year-old country singer escaping into a romanticized past he’s far too young to remember, creating an idyll that’s part historic replica and part day dream. Taken together, these records demonstrate different ways in which memory—personal or cultural— can help us make sense of the present.

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The bluesman is Mississippi legend Leo “Bud” Welch, whose recording career began when he was 81 and ended just four years later, with his death. The posthumously released The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name is only the third album in a tragically slim catalog, yet its scant 27 minutes feel loaded with the experience of a lifetime. Welch had to have known his time was running out when he chose these 10 gospel standards, songs rooted deep in the soil of the Christ-haunted South. Most of them will be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a big tent revival or Vacation Bible School, and Welch himself spent his whole life learning them. And yet, by the sound of this record, they’re still teaching him things; he treats his material not as historic artifact but as map and compass for the last leg of his journey home, looking to the songs he grew up with as a way to direct his final steps. What they offer is a model for approaching death with dignity: They emanate Christian assurance (“I Know I Been Changed”), steel against Satan’s advances (“Don’t Let the Devil Ride”), and pine for the nearness of the Shepherd (“Walk with Me Lord”). That they might resonate with an ailing Welch is no surprise, and though he’s never glib about facing mortality, he never sounds rattled by it, either; in “I Come to Praise His Name,” Welch storms the gates of heaven with thanksgiving on his tongue and joy in his heart. He locates a utility in these songs that his younger self couldn’t have grasped, and they give him a personal vocabulary for articulating the dimming of his day with peace and contentment.

That joyful countenance spills over into the performances themselves— quick and loose sessions that crackle with the electric energy of Auerbach’s band The Arcs, a far cry from the po-faced austerity you might anticipate from a twilight-years reflection like this. Though Welch clearly wasn’t in the prime of health when he cut this record, his righteous witness imbues everything with solemn authority; he mumbles with confidence, croaks with conviction, bellows with glee. He and the band blaze and howl and drone through the setlist with an appealing looseness, to the point that you can occasionally hear Welch mutter performance instructions, seemingly to himself. (“I wanna do another fast one, now let’s see…”) As the album’s producer, Auerbach is shrewd enough to leave the focus primarily on Welch’s voice and skeletal guitar work—on the opening “I Know I Been Changed,” the artist is accompanied only by the luminous shimmer of an organ—but he also orchestrates some cheerfully raucous mayhem: “Jesus is on the Mainline” is a big-footed stomp that shakes and rolls with jangly percussion and church piano; “I Come to Praise His Name” is frenzied call-and-response; “Right on Time” is a jocular country shuffle. Welch’s version of the Sunday School favorite “This Little Light of Mine” (here dubbed “Let it Shine”) is about the gnarliest you’ll ever hear; it’s as if the seeds planted in childhood have blossomed into a mighty and weathered oak, its leaves rustling in the wind but its roots as strong as ever.

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You could say that Alabama’s Dee White is at the other end of the spectrum in almost every way. Born 60 years after Welch, his interest in the past is one of revival rather than reappraisal; where Welch’s album makes ancient songs sound new again, White’s keen on generating new compositions that sound like lost relics of yesteryear. His yesteryear is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, an era alluring replicated on the Auerbach-produced Southern Gentleman. Soft and supple, the album ably weds countrypolitan extravagance to the wispy harmonies of Laurel Canyon folk, the booming theatricality of progressive country thrown in for good measure. Recorded with the Easy Eye house band—some of the same Nashville studio pros who played on Yola’s magnificent Walk Through Fire, augmented by luminous harmony singer/White super-fan Alison Krauss—Southern Gentleman is absent grit but hardly absent groove, as evidenced by the opening “Wherever You Go,” soft-touch Dixie funk that almost could have fit on a golden-era Little Feat record. Auerbach and White are fastidious in their attention to period detail, which includes florid orchestrations, finger-picked acoustic guitars, and plenty of high-and-lonesome pedal steel. It’s all anchored by White, a prodigiously out-of-time singer whose honeyed tenor can drop into solemn spoken-word asides just as easily as it crests into clarion falsetto. Auerbach and the Easy Eye gang christened him Boy Orbison for these sessions, which tells you plenty about his vocal purity, his seriousness, and his nose for good melodrama, and it seems unlikely that White would quibble with such an auspicious nickname: He’s got a sentimental streak a mile wide, something you can tell from the sepia-tinged narrative in “Bucket of Bolts,” where he looks back with fondness on his first car and on the “good ol’ pals” of his adolescence. (It can’t be emphasized enough: The dude was 20 when he cut this record.)

White’s commitment to a bygone era means his lyrics slip easily and often into old-timey vernacular (“preacher man;” “give that southern belle a ring;” “swimmin’ in our birthday clothes”),” and his halcyon vision of the South—one absent cell phones or political tension—is wholesome enough that the album’s moments of lustiness generally just consist of references to skinny-dipping. They’re clearly songs of innocence to Welch’s songs of experience, and where the elder performer looks to his past to illuminate an uncertain future, White seems more interested in using the past as a shelter from the treacherous present. That may sound like he’s on the wrong side of nostalgia, and certainly Southern Gentleman toes the line, but anyone who hears the album as pure escapism is overlooking its moments of real turmoil and angst. On “Rose of Alabam,” White narrates a scene of infidelity with flowery prose (“the petals of my daisy hit the floor one by one”), and on “Road That Goes Both Ways” he’s joined by fellow country upstart Ashley MyBryde for a pained duet about two separated lovers. On these songs, he’s not merely replicating or romanticizing the past, but looking to it to for a language he can use to express complicated emotions—not unlike what Welch does with the old standards. But perhaps the greatest validation of White’s stylized nostalgia is that, even as he recreates the sounds of a lost or imagined era, he never sounds painted into a corner. On the contrary, he finds immense freedom of expression across these songs, which are all so unerringly detailed that you’ll have to check the liner notes to determine the lone semi-obscure cover in the bunch: There’s breezy effervescence in the swampy two-step “Old Muddy River,” enveloping melancholy in the sadsack sway of “Oh No,” operatic dejection in the soaring arrangements of “Way Down.” Perhaps what both albums prove is that memory, however slanted, can be a source of empowerment, and that reimagining yesterday can provide signposts for navigating today and tomorrow.