Selwyn Birchwood: Florida Native Bares His Feet In The Blues

Photo by Paul Natkin


Selwyn Birchwood, Photo by Gail Gerdes, Jacksonville Beach, Mojo Kitchen
Photo by Gail Gerdes

It’s 90 degrees inside but bluesman Selwyn Birchwood is effortlessly cool. The Florida native is in his hometown of Orlando post Hurricane Irma where he is waiting for the power to be restored, an inconvenience he’s taking in stride with the same down-to-earth appeal that he displays on stage.

Birchwood, 32, most often plays in a t-shirt and jeans rocking bare feet and his signature afro. He laughs when asked if his decision to play sans shoes is merely for comfort or a connection to the vibrations of the music. “The second answer sounds like a cool answer but I kinda just don’t like shoes,” he says. “When I’m home, I’m barefoot.”

A veteran of the Springing the Blues festival, Birchwood returns to Jacksonville Beach Friday for a show at Mojo Kitchen BBQ. Show begins at 10 p.m. and tickets are $15. He is excited to play material from his latest release Pick Your Poison on Alligator Records to a hometown crowd.

“I’m always stoked at how much people dig music there, especially at the blues festival,” he says. “We’ve done it three years now and it’s such an awesome energy looking out at all those people off that mainstage. It’s always a great time.”

Birchwood continues to take the blues world by storm since signing with Alligator Records in 2014. He wrote and produced all 13 tracks on Pick Your Poison, coloring the music with gospel, funk and straight up blues. With his masterful guitar and lap steel skills on full display, Pick Your Poison is a rich collection of originals ranging from the humorously personal My Whiskey Loves My Ex to the gospel-tinged Even the Saved Need Saving. Birchwood explores hard truths in Corporate Drone and Police State and addresses an existential choice in the album’s title track.

“I was really stoked with the way it came out,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that people would want to listen to and focused on songwriting and the way we recorded it to have a more organic feel to it. It really came out the way that I was hoping it would. I’m happy that people are taking a liking to it for sure. If we write the best songs we can and record them the way that we want, everything else kind of falls into place.”

Selwyn Birchwood, Photo by Paul Natkin, Jacksonville Beach, Mojo Kitchen
Photo by Paul Natkin

The winner of the 2013 International Blues Challenge and Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award cut his teeth in central Florida music, where he developed a taste for blues classics. There wasn’t a lot of blues being played in the nearby clubs, so Birchwood hit the road in search of a new scene. He found what he was looking for in Tampa.

“I grew up in and around Orlando. I was listening to all these old records like John Lee Hooker and Son House but that wasn’t the sound that I was finding when I went to these blues jams. There wasn’t too much blues music in that area so I found myself driving three to four hours every weekend just to try and find some music,” Birchwood says. “The closest place seemed to be Tampa and I was able to catch Bernard Allison or Kenny Neal or Joe Lewis Walker or someone like that. I thought if I’m driving three or four hours every week, I might as well be living there so I moved to Tampa area and it was a great place to lay down a foundation. They’ve got a thriving music scene over there and a lot of support for local and live music. It was a lot better scene.”

Like many young guitar players, Birchwood discovered the blues by listening to Jimi Hendrix. When he made his way to the greats like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Buddy Guy and Albert King, Birchwood recognized his destiny. He formed the Selwyn Birchwood Band in 2010, releasing his independent debut FL Boy the following year. The band earned a spot in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2012, taking ninth place. They came back the next year with a renewed fire and determination to earn the top prize.

Birchwood’s first label release Don’t Call No Ambulance received the Blues Music Award and Living Blues’ Critic’s Show Award for Best Debut Album of the Year. In 2015, he earned the Blues Blast Rising Star Award. The band, featuring saxophonist Regi Oliver, bassist Huff Wright and drummer Courtney “Big Love” Girlie, has opened for blues greats including Robert Cray and Buddy Guy and shared a stage with his friend and mentor, Joe Louis Walker.

With the support of Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer, Birchwood is finding his voice as an artist for a new generation, bending the traditional blues notes to create an authentic, modern sound that speaks to everyone.

“What I really like about this music is that you’re able to come up with your own sound. We’re trying to come up with a sound that’s closer to our own and really take those older blues sounds and put our own personality into it,” he says. “I’ve always been a blues lover but good music is good music. I dig reggae, jazz, classical, funk and some rock stuff. I just want to take all those colors and put it together to see what kind of picture I can come up with. You can take the color blue and make a really awesome painting but if you put some other shades of purple or pink in there, it makes it a little more interesting.”

About Liza Mitchell