We recently sat down with Selwyn Birchwood, an up-and-coming young Blues guitarist living in Tampa, Florida. Selwyn has been making real waves in the blues lately, and brings a unique perspective as someone who is making his way in a new era of Blues players. Selwyn was born and raised in Orlando, Florida and has been playing guitar since he was 13. By 19, he was touring with the great Sonny Rhodes. In 2007, he graduated from University of Central Florida with a Bachelors Degree in Marketing and is currently working on a Masters Degree in Business Administration at University of Tampa.
Selwyn has been very busy this year. He and his band (The Selwyn Birchwood Band) have played the Sarasota Blues Fest, The Mount Dora Blues Fest, and The Clearwater Sea-Blues Fest. They opened for Kenny Neal and Joe Louis Walker. In February, The Selwyn Birchwood Band finished in the top 9 out of 225 entries at the IBC (International Blues Challenge) in Memphis, Tennessee. In May, Selwyn attended the Blues Music Awards, also in Memphis. Later in May, The Selwyn Birchwood Band played the Sarasota Blues and Brews benefit show.
You’ve opened for Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker Jr., Kenny Neal and Joe Louis Walker. Does being around them, playing with them, improve your playing?
“Being out there opening for them doesn’t really improve your playing, it’s more … it helps with exposure. When you are playing for them you get exposed to a wider audience, normally [in] a larger venue, larger audience and more people hear you; so you can pick up more fans, who get on Facebook afterwards and that sort of thing. So playing-wise it’s more of me sitting on YouTube or listening to CDs. It is always nice doing those type of shows though, because it gets you into bigger rooms and in front of bigger audiences and that type of thing.”
But I mean when Joe Louis Walker says “Come on up and play” and you’re up there playing with him, it has to be gratifying; but does it make you raise your own bar?
“It’s definitely different. It’s one of those things where you won’t find me getting up there drunk and trying to sit in with someone like that. When you’re with people that you know are top of the line, they know when you are off. They know. It’s almost like no pressure because you know, I’m sitting here playing next to Joe Louis Walker – I better put everything into it, and that’s all you can do. We were playing with him… and after we were playing the song a while and it got to be my solo, I was trying to show him that I could play a little bit too, and he just turns to me and says ‘Take your time son.’ What he meant was, you don’t have to throw out a bunch of notes like that. Just build your solo, play your stuff; tell your story. Those kind of guys you can learn a lot just by being around them. My drummer (Curtis Nutall) actually toured with him for five years.”
You started with Sonny Rhodes when you were 19. How did that come about?
“A buddy of mine knew that I played guitar and he said ‘A neighbor of mine has a band.’ In my head I’m thinking a bunch of drunk guys in a garage somewhere. He kept saying ‘My neighbor has a band. I’ll bring you in one of his CDs.’ And it was Sonny’s Blue Diamond CD. It was like the first note I heard on it with his lap steel, I was just like, floored! I had no idea what it was that was living next door to him. I didn’t know it was that kind of a band! I was like ‘You have to introduce me to this guy.’ He would come into town and do gigs at House of Blues and I actually went and saw him play twice; and I was too nervous to talk to him. … I was just about to graduate high school and I kept telling him [my buddy] to let me know when Sonny was in town; I wanted to meet him. I get a random call one afternoon. It’s my buddy and he says ‘Guess who’s in my driveway’ and I’m like ‘Who?’ and he says ‘Sonny Rhodes’. So I went over and he was like:
‘Hey [in a real deep voice]. Who are you?’
‘You play guitar? What do you play?’
And he smiled and said ‘Play something for me.’ I set up my amp in my buddy’s garage and I played a little bit of blues and stuff, and him and his drummer were standing there, and his bass player came over too, and I was just playing for him a little. Sonny just turned and looked at them and nodded his head and smiled. He had his band set up the drums and bass and everything in the back yard and he sat down and we played for 20 or 30 minutes. So he asks me if I had my passport and I said ‘Yeah, sure do: Where we going?'”
So being on the road …?
“You just have so much respect for those guys when you see how they live ’cause it’s not easy. However, people fantasize about being on tour; with Blues you’re not on tour, you’re on the road… you’re just driving!”
So between [your degree in Marketing] and the Business Administration [Degree]: Is that helping you with the business side of things? You’re going in with your eyes open kind of thing?
“That’s pretty much what it is. It’s just such a different environment than it was 30 years ago trying to do music. People will take advantage of you, just screw you over if you don’t know any better. It helps me because I have the experience of being with Sonny and I know how much you should be getting paid and how much percentages people should be taking and kind of how things should work. So if someone is trying to do otherwise, they kind of get caught off guard when I call them out on it. You can’t afford to not know what’s going on in this kind of environment these days.”
Yeah, it’s always good to support the artists where we can.
“Whenever I go to shows, I try to buy CDs at shows because it goes directly to the artist. When you buy stuff off iTunes and that type of thing, who knows how much the artist actually gets?”
You turned me on to Eugene Highway Bridges; I know you also dig Tab [Benoit] and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. I can hear a bit of them in your playing. Sometimes, when you see an artist perform, you can tell who they’ve been listening to, who their influences are. Who else influences what you play, or how you play; what you try to do?
“I try to take something from everyone I listen to. It’s kind of weird because you progress. Buddy Guy was the first real blues that I was exposed to. I was on a Hendrix kick and I went to a concert and saw Buddy Guy when I was 17 and I… just wasn’t prepared at all. I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. I’m talking three days later and I’m waking up and just like, ‘Wow! What just happened?’ It was just incredible. I dug up all the Buddy Guy I could; the older, the better on that stuff. I was researching who listened to who. If you talk to him, normally the first thing he talks about is Muddy Waters. He talks about B.B. King. So I got on a lot of B.B. King, that type of stuff. All the same people most people listen to: Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert Collins. Then I got on a kick to doing more roots based stuff; John Lee Hooker, Son House, and Lightning Hopkins. Then I kind of went more contemporary; Stevie Ray and more of the people that are more today… Tab Benoit. My favorite types of players to go see are the ones that incorporate a bunch of different styles. That’s what I want to do eventually. Like Sean Costello is one of my favorites. Damon Fowler is another one.”
Having seen you play live and listening to your CD, FL Boy, there’s a difference. The CD is slow, gritty, dirty, Blues. It’s good, but it seems as though you play more up-tempo stuff when you play live. I read somewhere that you are working on a new CD. Are you going to do some Swing Blues or Jump Blues, a different kind of Blues than you did on the first CD?
“We’re gonna do a bunch of the originals that we’ve been playing out. The next CD is gonna be geared toward more of a live sound, like the older records. I want to get that more ‘earthy’ feel to it. So it’s along the same lines but it depends on where you see us play, our repertoire changes from room to room depending on the where we are playing. There’s places where we play where I’ll be joking with the audience about Muddy Waters and they have no idea who that is. In a perfect world, I’d play Muddy Waters all night long. That’s where my heart is. There’s a lot of times I’ll have to play three songs that are more up-tempo or funky and get the people to kind of listen to you or maybe play a song that people have heard to draw people in. You know, do three of those and THEN I’ll do a Muddy Waters song and you’ve got everyone’s attention. Then they’ll pay attention, they’ll be into it. Sometimes when you just throw that really deep stuff on people, it can be lost, or it can be almost intrusive depending on where you are playing. So I’ll play three songs that I don’t like — that are a little bit ‘outside the box’ so I can play one just really deep song.
Pretty much, we’ll start with classic Blues stuff and then we might do some B.B. King or Buddy Guy. a lot of people think that they’re the only ones still playing Blues. So I explain to people just how many people are out there and they are doing over 300 dates a year. These people aren’t unknown. In the Blues world, they’re huge; people like Joe Louis Walker, Kenny Neal, Tab Benoit. We’ll do classic stuff and then I’ll do a Kenny Neal tune or a Tab Benoit tune, or a Ronnie Baker Brooks tune; people that are out touring right now but that people might not know off the top of their head but they hear the tune and be like ‘Who was that again?’ and you can kind of push it that way. Then we’ll do some original stuff after that, after you have everyone’s attention again. You know, I just think it’s a cool thing, you know, to turn people on to other stuff, and it helps to promote just the music itself which is the endgame.”
Selwyn plans to do more touring after finishing his Masters Degree in December. Shows that The Selwyn Birchwood Band will play later this year include:
Boston’s Red, White & Blues Festival, Delray Beach, FL
White Mountain Blues Festival, North Thornton, NH
Daytona Blues Festival, Daytona, FL