Savannah Welch a Year Later
After losing her leg, the Trishas singer revisits the accident and her blessings
Savannah Welch exudes a palpable joy. Even discussing traumatic events, her serene smile acts as preternatural reassurance. Both in person and as a performer, she's always in the moment.
Wimberley dweller since 2008, her father Kevin Welch, a renowned Okie songcatcher whose major label debut out of Nashville in 1990 staked alt.country before alt.country was cool" (revisit "Sky Blue Sky," April 21, 2010), recalls his middle child's earliest shows.
"When Vanny was a baby, if we told her to shimmy, shimmy shake, she'd do this cool little wiggle that cracked us all up," he laughs even now. "It was her first performance piece and I've always thought that she liked pleasing us, and liked the way it made her feel, too. Maybe that's why she loves acting, and why she's so good at it."
The patriarch inspired her and eldest offspring Dustin Welch into the arts, the pair now established Austin artists following his relocation here from Tennessee after three decades. Youngest sibling Ada Welch remained in Nashville to teach art to tots, while Dustin followed in his father's footsteps as a singer-songwriter and Savannah pursued acting and music in equal measure, the latter most notably in the Trishas, long dubbed a homegrown indie version of the Dixie Chicks. Kevin was with Savannah just over a year ago, Nov. 2, 2016, when a car slammed into her at the farmers' market in Wimberley.
Shopping alongside him and her 4-year-old son Charlie, she was pinned by the vehicle and had to be airlifted to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin. Kevin and Charlie had been standing on either side of Savannah minutes before she was hit.
"It's very hard for me to talk about it," says Kevin. "I'm revisited by that moment and the time after several times a day, and there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it yet. I now know that absolutely anything can happen anytime, anywhere, and so I take nothing for granted anymore."
Savannah's long-term partner, Jeff Burns, a hotel real estate investor, drove down from Dallas where the couple had been living.
"When she came to after the life flight and surgery, Jeff and I were by the bed," continues Kevin. "She had one of those giant tubes in her throat and couldn't speak. I had to tell her that they couldn't save her leg, and for about five seconds she panicked, but I told her it was a miracle Charlie hadn't been standing by her, and that angels were working overtime to have saved him from such a thing.
"She immediately relaxed and that was that. She has yet to complain or play the victim, except when that robot leg is hurting her. And even then, it just is what it is. I've never seen anything like it."
Angel From Montgomery
December 2017: Savannah's fresh off a flight from Nashville. She's also a doula and returns to Austin from having helped her sister Ada give birth. Her house near Downtown in Travis Heights is 1930s vintage, festively decorated and guarded by classic white rocking chairs on the porch. Roots are being laid.
Inside, it's clearly a musician's home, with an Epiphone arch-top guitar hanging on the wall next to an old Baldwin piano. There's a dining room table large enough to host a family feast and every room is filled with books upon books. The family moved into the historic neighborhood earlier this year because after the accident, the lady of the house felt a need to relocate to one of the centers of Austin music, a community that when news broke of her trauma raised $65,000 in two weeks to help with exorbitant medical bills (see "Playback – Still Standing: Savannah Welch," Nov. 18, 2016).
"It's so central, so easy, and so close to everybody," she nods. "I had some of the old Austinite pride of looking at the rental prices in this area and being like, 'No fucking way, I used to live on the corner for $650.' With my current situation, getting a bigger house with more acreage would be so much more for me to navigate and clean and maintain, so I'd rather spend the money on convenience, accessibility, and close proximity to the community."
The career trajectory of Savannah Welch isn't like that of most local musicians. Singing since infancy, she finally began considering it a vocation when forming the Trishas with Liz Foster, Kelley Mickwee, and Jamie Wilson in 2009. The band blew up quickly enough that Sony offered a development deal, but they turned it down. They'd only formed the band to pay tribute to her dad at MusicFest in Colorado.
Truth be told, Savannah hadn't started playing music publicly until her 20s, and then simply because her brother needed a backup singer and she already knew all the songs. At that juncture, she no longer considered herself a fan of getting up and singing for people. Welch jokes about whatever facility for performance she exhibited then being a byproduct of not yet attaining sobriety. Her coming-of-age wasn't a typical one.
"When I was in the second grade, I met John Prine at a funeral," she begins. "I had been taking guitar lessons and had just learned 'Angel From Montgomery.' I had no idea what it was about, but I loved it. A mutual friend, Sandy Bull, had passed away from cancer and we were at their house after the funeral. John Prine had just had surgery, so he was in a wheelchair and someone had parked him outside under a tree.
"My dad pointed at him through the window and said, 'Hey, that's the guy that wrote 'Angel From Montgomery.' I went out there by myself and told him I had just learned 'Angel From Montgomery' and that it was my favorite song in the whole entire world. I remember I sat down and made him one of those daisy-chain necklaces as we chatted. Then I was like 'bye' and left him sitting out there without telling anybody where he was.
"I don't recall what we talked about, but he's a great hang."
Charlie Is My Darling
Throughout our interview, Savannah tries to describe the accident from her perspective, her family's, and that of the local music community.
"I remember laying on the ground waiting for EMS to get there," she says at one point. "The very first thing, I looked at my leg. I was holding my hands around my leg. I was laying on the ground and I feel like I was on an incline, or maybe I just thought I was on an incline because I couldn't see the rest of my leg. I was wearing skinny jeans and my leg was just bulging. It was huge. I was like, 'What the hell?' I was in excruciating pain and had no idea what had happened."
In fact, everything happened to the Welch family all at once.
Around the same time as the accident, Dustin proposed to HalleyAnna Finlay and Kevin became engaged to Sarah Hibbard. Earlier this year, the paterfamilias and his new wife had a baby boy they named Sharktooth. Meanwhile, HalleyAnna's brother, Sterling Finlay, waited on a heart transplant. Hardship somehow held everything together.
"There's very little I'd want people to know about Savannah that they wouldn't know already having known her," says Dustin. "For anybody that meets her, there's no need be like, 'Okay, so she's this kinda person and that kinda person.' She's immediately somebody you warm up to and know exactly who she is within five minutes of being around her. She's extremely courageous, determined, and kind.
"She cares the world about everybody around her."
Savannah's son Charlie is now 5 and she recalls the first time he heard about her being fitted for a prosthetic limb.
"He thought it was the coolest thing ever," she chuckles, "but that's what feels the most challenging. The pointiest stuff is always internal. The greatest challenge has been to accept and adjust my personal level of expectation of myself. It feels like I'm trapped in a body that can't do all the things that I want to."
Charlie has referred to his mom as a superhero and frequently wants to show kids on the playground her new leg. Mom relates that when they told him she lost her leg he asked where they put it.
"I'm sure it's affected Charlie on other levels that will be revealed to us later," says Savannah. "It woke up compassion in him, to have compassion for other people that are not as able-bodied. Now he opens doors for people because that's what he's learned in taking care of me. I didn't want this to affect him in a way that it's his job to now take care of me and for him to have more responsibilities than a normal 5-year-old boy would.
"Things have come out of my mouth, though, like, 'Charlie, I can't come to you. If you want a hug, you have to come to me.' So, he will have to gather himself up and come across the room to me, instead of me being able to go to him. So there are moments when I'm like, he's having to grow up a bit more."
Savannah Welch maintains an amazingly positive perspective. You just want to sit on one of her porch-bound rocking chairs and while away the hours with her. She was kind, full of life, and radiated warmth before the accident, but now all such facets have amplified to what Charlie might term superhuman levels.
"I keep coming back around to having such gratitude for life and having the perspective shift to appreciate life in a way that I didn't before," she admits. "I've said it a million times before, but before the accident, I had some trauma in my adolescence and my early 20s. I had gone through a devastating relationship with Kyle Ellison; struggled with addiction and got clean; had some suicidal ideology; was always receiving services from SIMS. I love community life here in Austin, because people feel like family here, our community family."
Leaving her home, which sits near neighborhood park Little Stacy where I used to play as a child, I'm struck by something Savannah Welch said to me, something stuck on repeat in my head:
"I always felt like I was trying to talk myself into wanting to be here in life. It felt like this thing that I didn't want to have to do. So, what shifted for me with the accident is not that I have to do it, it's that I get to do it.
"Show up for people that you love and that love you. Go support them in whatever they're doing. Be there for big moments."