As the News-Press learned earlier in the summer with Mud Morganfield, the blues are more than just a musical genre – they’re a way of life. To play them, you have to have ‘em, and that lesson is all the more apparent to blues musicians like Selwyn Birchwood, who will continue to find his footing among the genre’s greats when he comes to play at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. this Friday.
Just like the 32-year-old, Birchwood’s career is young. He introduced himself through his first album, FL Boy, in 2011 and after 2014’s Don’t Call No Ambulance solidified him as a tried and true blues musician this year’s Pick Your Poison catapults Birchwood gravitas to the next level. His rapid rise within the scene would have you believe Birchwood is the prodigal son of blues’ next wave, but in reality his success mirrors the coming-of-age discoveries that outline most of our lives.
As a middle schooler in the ‘90s, Birchwood started out playing guitar to the tunes he saw on television. It wasn’t until he came across Jimi Hendrix and his pronounced influence in blues that Birchwood felt he found his calling.
“I was trying to trace back and find out what would possess someone to write that kind of music because I hadn’t heard anything like it before,” Birchwood said. “When you look back [Hendrix’s] bio you find the older blues guys – Muddy Waters, Elmore James and especially Buddy Guy – I looked into what music they made and felt like I found a sound that I’d been looking for.”
With his passion in tow, Birchwood committed himself to mastering his six-string and crafting harmonies. That mission got a boost when a chance encounter with blues legend Sonny Rhodes was organized by a friend. After a single jam session, Rhodes was drawn to Birchwood’s ability and invited the then-19-year-old to tour with his band.
Touring with Rhodes taught Birchwood the do’s and don’ts of a career in the music industry. From scheduling travel to understanding how to run a band, Birchwood learned from Rhodes how a musician can operate successfully in the nomadic and sometimes sporadic lifestyle. Birchwood would later one-up Rhodes’ teachings when he went on to earn his MBA from the University in Tampa in order to get a big-picture idea of how to grow his personal brand. But back in the past when Birchwood fretted over not practicing enough to elevate his skill, Rhodes gave him sage-like advice to ease his mind.
“[Rhodes] said, ‘You gotta just play what’s in your heart. You’re never gonna be the best…no one’s the best, but you can be the best at being you,’ I never really forgot that.” Birchwood added.
Of course the crucial element of playing the blues is having the blues in you. The hardships of a person’s life take center stage (literally) as the pain they’ve experienced is expressed through a microphone and shared with a crowd of attentive listeners. For Birchwood, he harkens back to 90 hour road trips with Rhodes and his humble beginnings in Orlando.
“You don’t realize you’re poor when you’re a kid until you go to other people’s houses and wonder ‘What’s going on?’” Birchwood chuckled.
And though it serves a critical role in his music, that life itself is mostly behind Birchwood. The smoky-voiced, guitar and lap steel-playing virtuoso is an established character in the continuation of the genre’s proud legacy. Birchwood uses his platform to pass on his love for the sound and the stories it tells to hopefully endow that same passion in another young artist out there. Whoever that next artist may be, all they have to remember is to live a little first before they can relive it on stage.
For more information on Selwyn Birchwood, visit selwynbirchwood.com.