Selwyn Birchwood Works Hard for His Blues
Lessons in art and life from an ax-shredding MBA . . . who’s never held a day job.
Award-winning young blues musician Selwyn Birchwood is living proof of a maxim from a more newfangled genre – it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’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 wasn’t that much of the music happening in his hometown.
“I found myself traveling about three, four hours every weekend trying to find a band to watch,” he says.
He wasn’t deterred, though, and picked up blues licks and style mostly from CDs and records. (No shame in that – 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 Don’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 – as his first local connection immediately recognized.
“I had a friend, he kept telling me about a friend of his with a blues band, and I’d kind of brush it off,” Birchwood says. “I figured it was just some bar band, guys getting drunk.”
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 – a meeting that turned into an audition.
“I 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.”
Rhodes taught Birchwood the practical, business side of music, grooming him to become a bandleader in his own right. But Birchwood knew that he couldn’t do it in Orlando.
There was also – and this is where Birchwood’s story takes an odd swerve – the MBA program at the University of Tampa. Birchwood says blithely that he “just happened to come across an opportunity” 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, he’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 – and it fit Birchwood’s character.
“I’ve always been very business-minded,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve always run it.” A little bemused, he also notes that “a lot of people are excited to work with me, knowing that I have an MBA.”
Birchwood adds that determination and focus have been more important to his success than talent. “I’m not the best singer or guitarist I know by any means, but I’m definitely the hardest working person I know in a lot of sense.”
He’s almost certainly being modest about his musical talents. He’s been showered with awards, including the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award and Best New Artist from the Blues Music Awards.
But he’s not kidding about the hard work, either. He’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.
Birchwood’s connections to and love for Tampa remain powerful. The release party for his next record, Pick Your Poison, will be sponsored by WMNF.
“We’ve been all over the world,” he says of the community-driven station’s support for local music, “And I can tell people, it’s not like that everywhere.”
He doesn’t hold back about his debts to the Palladium’s Paul Wilborn, either. He describes early shows at the venue drawing small crowds. But Wilborn’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 Palladium’s smaller stage, and hints he might be moving up to the theatre soon.
Of course, none of it would have happened if Birchwood wasn’t seriously about his business – and hard work is his biggest piece of advice for artists just starting out.
“I feel like a lot of people wait around for things to happen. That’s not how stuff works.”