Selwyn Birchwood awoke at 4 a.m. to the sound of scuffling and fighting in the hallway outside his hotel room in Richmond, Virginia. The four gunshots that followed had him diving to the floor for cover. After an altercation that began with people in Room 302 — and created a bloody mess in the hall, elevator and lobby — Birchwood, who was in 301, decided it was time to get back on the road.
Such is the life of a musician.
“It’s just crazy,” Birchwood said. “Sometimes people overlook the stuff that we go through just to get to the stages. It’s not always easy to do what we’re doing. If it was easy, then everybody would be doing it.”
However, Birchwood makes it look easy. Standing 6-foot-3 in his bare feet, which is how he prefers to perform, the 32-year old from Tampa, Florida, is comfortable on stage. He’s a singer with a bold, gravelly voice, a songwriter who has penned every song in his two albums and an accomplished lap steel player and guitarist. He is confident enough with his talent that instead of using his master’s degree to pursue a career in business, he records and travels the country, dodging bullets and thrilling music lovers with tons of energy and youthful exuberance.
“I am convinced he’s going to be the blues artist of his generation,” said Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer, who signed Birchwood after he won both the International Blues Challenge and the Albert King honor for best guitarist at the 2013 event in Memphis. “He’s just loads of fun. He’s a very kid-like kid, and I mean that in the best possible way.”
Veteran bluesman Tinsley Ellis has eyes and ears for young talent. He was the first to record Derek Trucks and he wrote the song that jump started Jonny Lang’s career.
“Selwyn is the brightest new star in the blues,” Ellis said. “He’s proof that the genre is in good hands for a long time to come.”
Despite such lofty projections, Birchwood is humble enough be excited when he hears his songs on the radio. Three from his second album, “Pick Your Poison,” are getting regular air play.
When the “B.B. King’s Bluesville” program broadcast “Guilty Pleasures” from his new album and listed the shows on his tour, Birchwood, riding shotgun, made a video recording on his phone and posted it on Facebook. The bemused look on the driver, bass player Huff Wright, is hilarious. This group, which includes saxophonist Regi Oliver and drummer Courtney “Big Love” Girlie, the newest member, is enjoying the ride.
“I’ve watched him grow at a startling rate” Oliver said in an earlier interview. “He’s very serious about what he’s doing. He’s not one of those shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, afraid-of-success musicians. That kind of attentiveness and discipline reminds me of a younger version of myself. We pride ourselves in picking winners and Selwyn’s definitely a winner.”
Birchwood’s early passion was basketball but he was inspired to learn guitar after he heard Jimi Hendrix and then attended a Buddy Guy concert. He wrote poetry and excelled in his English classes and, like a good student, he did his homework when delving into the blues.
“I really fell in love with the old-style kind of blues and older blues musicians,” Birchwood said. “So it seems like no matter what I do, I kind of fall back on that still. Those sounds and feels of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker are deep seated into what I’m doing. So I consciously try to take the stuff that they did and put my own personality into it … and eventually come up with a sound that you call your own and bring it to newer and wider audiences.”
Oliver and Wright both have jazz and blues backgrounds and are a couple of decades older than the frontman. They have been with Birchwood since even before the IBC.
“I look at him with the perspective of him being more than just a blues guitar player because of the whole blues genre as we know it is evolving,” Wright said. “And it’s evolving to the point where it’s including a little of this style of music, a little of that style of music, yet it’s assembled under the blues umbrella. Selwyn’s very versatile like that because he is able to play different styles.”
Birchwood said he chose his bandmates for their musicianship. Their experience is a bonus.
“I learn a lot from those guys because they grew up around a lot of different music that I didn’t grow up around,” he said. “And they’ve been playing a lot of different music for a lot of years. It’s really cool to just try to absorb all the information and music that I can from guys like that.”
Birchwood has had the privilege of mentorship from veteran bluesmen since he was 19. That’s when he was invited to the home of the neighborhood’s celebrity, slide guitarist Sonny Rhodes, who asked him to play a song.
[pullquote]Selwyn is the brightest new star in the blues. He’s proof that the genre is in good hands for a long time to come.”[/pullquote]Before he could even finish his first tune, Rhodes stopped him to ask, “Do you have a passport?”
In addition to hiring Birchwood to play in his band, Rhodes encouraged the youngster to learn to play with a slide. Flash forward to 2017 and Rhodes was brought on to a festival in Switzerland to appear onstage before Birchwood’s band.
“It’s like I’ve gone full circle,” said Birchwood, who has been a professional musician now for a third of his life.
Released earlier this year, “Pick Your Poison,” has soul, rock and Hill Country blues stylings. But even such broad descriptions can rankle Birchwood a bit.
“I like all kinds of blues music and I have never understood — and I still don’t understand — how people want to pigeonhole the music,” he said. “They kind of find a snippet of a sound that they like and they want to say that anything outside of whatever sound that is that is not OK and I don’t really dig that.”
Iglauer, who founded Alligator Records in 1971 and is the executive producer of “Pick Your Poison,” explained: “Blues audiences tend to be a little musically conservative. He’s determined to push the envelope while making sure that one foot is firmly in the tradition.
“Selwyn’s a very smart guy and he gives a lot of thought to the creation of the songs and what image he is trying to convey for himself and the blues. (‘Pick your Poison’) is very much Selwyn’s own concept. I approved all the songs because I insist on doing that with all my artists but all the production ideas are his. What impressed me is the maturity with which he presented so many different styles of blues.”
Birchwood has flown to a couple of festivals on the West Coast and has played at San Francisco’s Biscuits and Blues. In November, he makes his first driving tour in the West, playing from Arizona to Washington for 13 shows in 19 days. He and his band appear in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room on Friday, Nov. 10. Concertgoers can count on a colorful show.
“I think that there’s so many different styles just even within the blues genre that are still relevant and cool,” said Birchwood, whose mother is a painter. “I always liken it to trying to paint a picture with just using the color blue and you know that can be kind of boring. If you put some different shades of blue then it gets a little bit more interesting. I like to put some other colors to it; you know, try to put some sort of funk and some jazz and some rock on our music and it makes for a more interesting kind of painting.”
When: 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Red Room
West Coast Tour
Nov. 8-9 – Biscuits and Blues, San Francisco
Nov. 10 – Crystal Bay Casino, Lake Tahoe
Nov. 11 – Sutter Creek Theatre, Sutter Creek
Nov. 12 – Feather Falls Casino, Oroville
Nov. 17 – Dawson’s Barr and Grill, Tacoma, Washington
Nov. 18 – Highway 99 Blues Club, Seattle
Nov. 19 – The Roadhouse, Spokane