Selwyn Birchwood was just a budding teenage guitar enthusiast when he took a chance on a show featuring an artist he’d only ever read about in liner notes.
“I was 17 when I first saw Buddy Guy perform, and I didn't know anything about him,” Birchwood said in a late-July interview. “I bought the ticket blindly. I had only read about him in a Jimi Hendrix album, and I said, ‘All right, let's go check this guy out.’ It seemed like he was coming into town the very same week that I heard about him, and I was not prepared for the amount of soulfulness and charisma and just authenticity flowing off of that stage. That's when I decided, I said, ‘I don't know what this is, but this is what I wanna learn. This is what I want to do forever.’”
From there the Florida native began honing his chops with a newfound intent, and as the mojo hand of the blues had already intervened once in his destiny, so did it point Birchwood in the direction of Texas lap steel guitarist Sonny Rhodes, a blues legend who coincidentally and unbeknownst to Birchwood happened to reside in the same zip code.
“I started with Sonny Rhodes' band when I was 19. He was a neighbor of a friend of mine in high school, and he kept saying ‘My neighbor's got a blues band, and I think it's a bunch of drunk people in a garage somewhere…’ And it turns out to be an internationally touring Texas blues band. I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to hook me up with this musician.’ [Rhodes] heard me play about half a song and turned to me and said, ‘Son, do you have a passport?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and sure enough, within 30 days he had me touring all over the US, all over Canada with him, and really showed me what it was to be a touring blues musician and a bandleader. I couldn't be more grateful.”
That first trip with Rhodes gave Selwyn his first hard look at a possible future, specifically the potential brutality of the road.
“Our first tour, we started in Orlando, Florida, and our first show was in Calgary, Alberta. He laughed and said, ‘Son, you're gonna have some miles when I'm done with you,’ and he wasn't lying! It was 86 hours to our first show. [There] was a moment I had after driving 40 hours straight, no stopping, and realizing I'm not even halfway there, I said, ‘Man, do I really want to do this?’ I did then, and I still do now, man! But I earned my way and I got my miles and paid my dues -- and continue to pay my dues.”
The receipts from those early dues came back when the Selwyn Birchwood Band landed in Memphis in 2013 and rose above 150 other outfits to win the International Blues Challenge. A year later, Birchwood was signed to Alligator Records and made his debut with the award-winning “Don’t Call No Ambulance,” followed by “Pick Your Poison” in 2017. In 2021, Alligator Records released “Living in a Burning House” which paired Birchwood with drummer, songwriter, producer, and modern blues guru Tom Hambridge (whose credits include Susan Tedeschi, Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker).
“I can't even remember where I met [Hambridge]. I know that I'd met him in passing several times at the Blues Music Awards up in Memphis and then also on some other blues festivals when he was playing drums, backing up different artists,” Birchwood said.
“I kind of connected with him -- rather than the accolades and stuff that everyone is trying to get after him because he's worked with this person or that person, I kind of took him aback, I think, because I was just like, ‘Man, I really dig your songwriting,’ and that's all I wanted to talk about with him was writing songs. We really connected on that and worked well together in the studio because we're both just trying to write the best song possible and deliver it the best way possible. I think we really delivered on this new album ‘Excorcist,’ for sure.”
Birchwood’s latest album for Alligator, “Exorcist” carries on in the fashion of what Birchwood champions as “electric swamp funkin’ blues,” but with flavors of brimstone and midnight that navigate hallmarks of hard luck and love, but also near-supernatural themes ala Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Albert King. Full of tone and swagger, it’s blues for now and tomorrow.
“I try to make the music that I really enjoy listening to, and my favorite music is music that either tells a story or evokes some kind of deep emotion,” Birchwood said. “And the best way I could figure to do it on this album was to take some folklore and some horror themes in "Exorcist" and voodoo and wrap it all up into a song, and yeah, I couldn't be happier with the results.”
While appreciative of his heroes and all the bluesmen who came before him, Birchwood’s balance of tradition and innovation is compelling, though not necessarily calculated, eschewing any prescribed agenda for the pursuit of honesty both in the studio and on stage.
“All I know is that I love blues music. I love the old-school style, but I also love songwriting. I love creativity and imagination, and I feel like half of the population wants to just stifle blues music and say, ‘If you didn't do it the way that they did it a hundred years ago, then it's not right.’ And I just don't dig that,” Birchwood said. “It's kind of turning into a music that's sort of a ‘paint by numbers’, and people will trace someone else's masterpiece and say, ‘Oh, look how good of an artist I am!’ I feel like that's missing the mark. It starts to feel fraudulent after a while, hearing people singing about someone else's story. With my music, I get on stage and I tell my story of what I know, and I think that's when people connect with the music. It stops being just words and lyrics and chords and starts to be medicine when you can relate with that human experience.”
Birchwood, who also holds a master’s degree from the University of Tampa, was a relentless performer before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the release of “Exorcist,” he and his band – Regi Oliver (baritone saxophone) Huff Wright (bass guitar), Bizzy Garner (drums), and Michael Hensley (keyboards) -- have renewed their commitment to the road and each other. Barnstorming with a passion wherever they're welcome, any tensions from “before” are barely ghosts.
“The tension was when we weren't able to travel and tour and play music,” Birchwood said enthusiastically. “We're so happy (now), even the things that really got to us before, we realized how blessed we are to have those headaches now and couldn't be happier to be getting back out in front of crowds and live audiences.”
Oh, and remember that first Buddy Guy concert?
“I got to get on stage with him in the same city where I first saw him, and it was almost exactly 20 years later,” Birchwood revealed. “I still have the ticket stub from it -- June of 2003 -- and I got on stage with him in August 2023, so it's a really surreal thing for me!”
Birchwood will perform at Cottonmouth Southern Soul Kitchen this Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. The artist will also perform at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa on Friday, Sep. 15.
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