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Singer 'Sticks' to country music

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- With his scruffy beard, road-worn features, several books' worth of stories and the most perfect nickname any man's ever been given, Bernard "Stick" Welch is the quintessential small-time country music road warrior.

He has 19 songwriting credits to his name, a collection of snippets that will no doubt make their way onto record in the near future, and enough memories to fill three Albany Civic Centers. Yet Welch is only now starting to realize a return on the musical obsession that he's carried for all of his 75 years.

With the help of Albany producer Ed McRee, Welch recently released his second collection of songs. "Patriotic Country Blues" includes 12 tracks, nine of which were written or co-written by Welch and recorded by the singer during his heyday, the late '60s and early '70s.

Welch recorded the songs on 45 rpm records, but McRee collected the 45s onto a single disc that Welch is now selling to friends and fans.

"I had enough people that wanted copies of my first disc ('Workin' Man Sings Good Ole Songs,' collected and recorded by McRee three years ago) that I decided to put out another one," Welch said. "Since not too many people play 45 rpm records any more, I took a copy of my records to (McRee's) studio and had a master made. I had CD copies made of ('Patriotic Country Blues') from the master.

"These are songs I either wrote or recorded up in Nashville from 1969 to 1974. This has gotten me back into the country music that I love."

WELCH WAS BORN in Dothan, Ala., in 1935. He started working with his dad at A.A. Welch's plumbing and electric company as a boy of 12 and was accepted in the Albany pipefitters' union in 1953 after moving here the year before to work on a downtown office building.

In addition to construction work, A.A. Welch introduced his son to country music at an early age. Bernard Welch and his cousin, Ray Kirkland, shared the family's love for music, and when they were old enough started traveling together to watch country and bluegrass musicians like Hank Williams and Jim and Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys.

Kirkland landed a job as a Nashville musician and in the early '70s invited his cousin to work as a road manager for the Osborne Brothers. Since Welch was working with a construction crew on a power plant near Clarksville, Tenn. -- about 50 miles from Nashville -- he jumped at the opportunity.

Torn between family responsibilities and the siren song of music, Welch spent as much time as he could performing with various bands while maintaining his reputation as a reliable construction supervisor.

"That's how I got my name," Welch said of the sobriquet he's now known by. "I was working on a job in Columbia, Ala., and the foreman there said he had to have someone on the job he could count on. Folks I'd worked with told him if I gave my word, I'd stick with it.

"I've always had a reputation for sticking in there."

Welch formed a number of bands over the next two decades, splitting his time between working construction, performing and writing tunes with Kirkland. One of the songs co-written by the two is the touching "Grandpa's Shoes," which has received recent air play on local radio station WWVO.

"That song's a tribute to my grandpa," Welch said. "In all the years I spent with him I never heard him fuss and I never heard him cuss. He dedicated his life to raising his 11 kids."

WELCH MET HIS future wife, Debbie, after he heard her sing with a band at a club he leased in Dothan. The couple formed their own band and went on the road, taking whatever job they could find -- even pass-the-hat gigs -- before passing on an offer to do a 10-month tour in Canada and returning to Dothan.

The Welches moved back to Albany a few years ago, and Stick Welch has split his time between helping old friends with construction projects and reviving his music career.

"I've been invited to play at a few places, but I'm too tired to go back on the road," Welch said. "I've seen a lot of stuff on the road in my career, and if you're going to make it you have to have a band that's willing to put everything else aside.

"There were times when it looked like we were on the way but something would happen and we'd have to start all over. People will tell you they'll do anything to get a job in the music business, but there are always things that get in the way."

But Welch is not one to dwell on the past. He's selling his two CDs, planning a Christmas CD that will include another of his earlier originals, and he's working with Debbie on a gospel disc.

"I remember I was in Tootsie's in Nashville one night, and I saw a guy writing stuff on the back of a paper bag," Welch said. "A lot of stars used to walk out the back of the Grand Ole Opry into Tootsie's, and there were always people there hoping to sell them a song.

"I remember telling this guy, 'I imagine some of the best songs that's ever been wrote but never been recorded washed down the sewer outside here when it rained.'"

Welch paused a moment to let his words sink in.

"There's a song in that," he said, a twinkle in his eye. "It hasn't come to me yet, but I'm going to write that one one day."

As country poet laureate Robert Earl Keen once observed in one of his most memorable songs, "The road goes on forever ..."

Those words could very well have been written for Stick Welch.