Selwyn Birchwood is the latest of several blues artists who have come through in the last 20 years with the promise of carrying on the long and storied tradition of America’s oldest original music. The 29-year-old singer-songwriter released his label debut Dont’ Call No Ambulance in June 2014 with the legendary independent blues label Alligator Records, who have released records by Grammy-award winning musicians Buddy Guy and Robert Cray.
These details might bring to mind a dated, vintage sound or style – but Birchwood is modern, both in the way that his music sounds and the way he approaches his career as a musician. His latest album was produced by Bruce Iglauer.
“My heart is in the old style of blues,” Birchwood said. “But, especially going to somewhere like Alligator Records where Bruce has recorded everybody under the sun, there’s no way you’re gonna do what the original guys did better than they did so I try to put whatever spin we can on it to make it a little more original and up to date.”
Birchwood, who hails from Tampa, Florida, started playing the guitar when he was 13 and was 19 and in college when he met Texas-born blues legend Sonny Rhodes and started touring with him soon after. But didn’t take that progression in his career to mean that he could drop out. In fact, Birchwood insisted that he at least pursue higher education through his Master’s degree.
“I talked to a lot of people and they would ask ‘What do you need school for?’,” Birchwood said. “I looked at it the completely opposite way. The shows can dry up and if something happens where I have to get a job it would be a lot easier with that education behind me. And I always been academic, since I was a kid.”
He followed through on his promise to attain higher education and earned his Masters of Business Administration degree from the University of Tampa in 2010. Shortly thereafter, he independently released his first album FL Boy (2011), which was followed up by Road Worn (2013).
Birchwood’s musical career has been in overdrive since last year, when he won the International Blues Challenge (IBC) with The Selwyn Birchwood Band, was named the Albert King Guitarist of the Year and signed to Alligator Records. He and his band, which consists of Donald Wright on bass, Curtis Nutall on drums and Regi Oliver on baritone sax, have had very few breaks since winning the IBC and have been touring virtually non-stop since releasing the album in June.
And they’re the feature act this Saturday at the 2014 D.C. Blues Festival at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind, man. Once we won the IBC I was just adamant about trying to take advantage of it the best I could,” Birchwood said.
“I started soliciting as many agents as I could, booking as many shows as I could and just trying to get our name out there. And now we’re just trying to build a crowd and a following one show at a time.
“We just try to go out every single show and knock it out every time we play.”
• For more information about Selwyn Birchwood, visit selwynbirchwood.com.