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Born to be BLUE

Selwyn Birchwood performs at Mojo Kitchen

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In modern blues circles, Selwyn Birchwood is considered a youthful redeemer. As a teenager, the Orlando native received his initial training on the road with Texas-born lap-steel master Sonny Rhodes. Since then, Birchwood has won the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge, released two albums on revered label Alligator Records, scored effusive praise from Rolling Stone and NPR, and earned his MBA—all by the ripe old age of 32.

It’s impressive that Birchwood has pushed himself to both write and perform original music, eschewing the convenience of sticking with crowd-friendly covers and tried-and-true traditionals. Part of that lesson came from his early road journeys with Rhodes, where Birchwood served as the veteran’s second-in-command. Part of it came from time hitting the Southeastern club circuit hard, where bar bands are a dime a dozen and true originality stands out. Add impeccable licks and fiery stage energy into a 6-foot-3-inch package, topped with a prodigious Afro and a propensity to prowl the stage barefoot, and it’s clear why Birchwood has succeeded.

That success oozes from his 2017 album, Pick Your Poison. “I was really happy with the way it came out,” he tells Folio Weekly. “I really tried to write the best songs and record ’em with my band the best way so they’d have an organic feel. We don’t think too much beyond that—take care of what we can on our end and let everything else fall into place.”

With a higher profile come much greater opportunities—two weeks ago, Birchwood performed on NPR’s World Café, and his current tour toggles between small blues rooms and bigger festival stages. And after three consecutive appearances at the local Springing the Blues Fest (each of which were widely hailed), Birchwood and his band have built up a solid audience in Northeast Florida. “Jacksonville’s been cool to us,” he says. “I like Mojo Kitchen, where we can interact individually with people easier. But it doesn’t matter what the venue is—we just show up and try to put on the best show we can every night.”

Though Birchwood absorbed early inspiration from trad-blues masters like Buddy Guy and Albert King (the young axeslinger has opened for both), the songwriter/guitarist/singer is intent on carving out his own modern blues path. “The first time I saw Buddy Guy, I felt that natural high from the blues, and since then I’ve been trying to chase that dragon again,” Birchwood says. “It’s something I’ll never forget. I’ve never been one to copy, imitate or emulate, though, so it was natural for me to learn the tradition and then try to search for my own voice. That’s what’s cool about the blues—it’s expressive and individual. You can really put your own signature on it.”

Birchwood big-ups the folks at Alligator Records who’ve helped expand his reach over the course of his last two albums. “When I found out there were 16 people working over there, I thought that was a lot,” he laughs. “Once I met them, though, I realized that those 16 people do the work of 60.” There’s no denying the fact that a photogenic young bluesman with one eye on the past and one eye on the future and an MBA in his back pocket is an easy commodity to promote. (Not to mention that Selwyn Birchwood answered Folio Weekly’s phone interview request while driving around his Tampa neighborhood trying to find an air-conditioned hotel in the immediate wake of Hurricane Irma.)

“Having the degree helps you to understand different aspects of the business—and understand it is a business,” Birchwood says. “That’s what Sonny Rhodes and Joe Louis Walker did for me, and it’s directly helped me do my thing a little better. I’ve always been one to do my own thing, in all aspects of life.”

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