Selwyn Birchwood Works Hard for His Blues

Lessons in art and life from an ax-shredding MBA . . . whoäó»s never held a day job.

Award-winning young blues musician Selwyn Birchwood is living proof of a maxim from a more newfangled genre äóñ itäó»s not where youäó»re from, itäó»s where youäó»re at.

Birchwood grew up around Orlando and knew from an early age that he wanted to be involved with music. Seeing Buddy Guy at 17 opened his eyes to the power of the blues, but he found that there wasnäó»t that much of the music happening in his hometown.

äóìI found myself traveling about three, four hours every weekend trying to find a band to watch,äó he says.

He wasnäó»t deterred, though, and picked up blues licks and style mostly from CDs and records. (No shame in that äóñ so did a surprising number of blues musicians going all the way back to the early 20th century.) Fifteen years later, on releases like his Alligator Records album Donäó»t Call No Ambulance, those influences blaze out in the form of grinding, raucous electric boogie-blues.

But Birchwood was ready long before releasing his record äóñ as his first local connection immediately recognized.

äóìI had a friend, he kept telling me about a friend of his with a blues band, and Iäó»d kind of brush it off,” Birchwood says. “I figured it was just some bar band, guys getting drunk.äó

The band in question turned out to belong to world-renowned bluesman Sonny Rhodes, who was living just outside of Orlando. As soon as Birchwood realized his mistake, he rushed to meet Rhodes äóñ a meeting that turned into an audition.

äóìI started to play, and before I finished the song he cut me off. He asked me if I had a passport. Within a month I was on the road touring all over the U.S. and Canada. I was 19.äó

Rhodes taught Birchwood the practical, business side of music, grooming him to become a bandleader in his own right. But Birchwood knew that he couldnäó»t do it in Orlando.

äóìI decided to move over to Tampa because thereäó»s a lot more support for music over here, especially for blues music.” he says. “Thereäó»s the Suncoast Blues Society; thereäó»s WMNF.äó

Selwyn Birchwood, photo by Paul Natkin.


There was also äóñ and this is where Birchwoodäó»s story takes an odd swerve äóñ the MBA program at the University of Tampa. Birchwood says blithely that he äóìjust happened to come across an opportunityäó to attend the program, and that among other things being back in school gave him time to get his band together. He managed to get things moving before the program was over, and, he says, heäó»s never had to put its lessons to work in a conventional office role.

But the MBA might not have been a bad move, given the rough road musicians have had to deal with for the last decade or so äóñ and it fit Birchwoodäó»s character.

äóìIäó»ve always been very business-minded,” he says. “Thatäó»s the way Iäó»ve always run it.äó A little bemused, he also notes that äóìa lot of people are excited to work with me, knowing that I have an MBA.äó

BirchwoodŒæadds that determination and focus have been more important to his success than talent. äóìIäó»m not the best singer or guitarist I know by any means, but Iäó»m definitely the hardest working person I know in a lot of sense.äó

Heäó»s almost certainly being modest about his musical talents. Heäó»s been showered with awards, including the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award and Best New Artist from the Blues Music Awards.

But heäó»s not kidding about the hard work, either. Heäó»s recently relocated from Tampa back to Orlando, but says he spends so much time on the road that he barely feels like he has a real home base.

Birchwoodäó»s connections to and love for Tampa remain powerful. The release party for his next record, Pick Your Poison, will be sponsored by WMNF.

äóìWeäó»ve been all over the world,äó he says of the community-driven stationäó»s support for local music, äóìAnd I can tell people, itäó»s not like that everywhere.äó

He doesnäó»t hold back about his debts to the Palladiumäó»s Paul Wilborn, either. He describes early shows at the venue drawing small crowds. But Wilbornäó»s enthusiasm for the band led him to keep booking them, and the crowds grew steadily. Now, Birchwood sells out two-night stands whenever he plays the Palladiumäó»s smaller stage, and hints he might be moving up to the theatre soon.

Of course, none of it would have happened if Birchwood wasnäó»t seriously about his business äóñ and hard work is his biggest piece of advice for artists just starting out.

äóìI feel like a lot of people wait around for things to happen. Thatäó»s not how stuff works.äó

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