These days, the big buzz in the Tampa Bay music scene is blues singer-guitarist Selwyn Birchwood. A man constantly on the go — writing, recording and performing at home and abroad — he was recently signed to legendary blues label Alligator Records.
On Friday, he's having a release party for his label debut, Don't Call No Ambulance, at Skipper's Smokehouse. Directly after that, he and his band are heading out to tour the U.S. for the remainder of the summer.
Birchwood started playing guitar when he was 12, learning songs and riffs from the radio of the '90s: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, et al. He eventually grew bored of the era's radio fare, until a friend turned him on to Jimi Hendrix.
"When I heard what he was doin', I was like 'Man, what is all of that goin' on?' " Birchwood said. "I was like, 'I am missing out on a lot of good stuff.' I had to find out what inspired him; where did those sounds come from? In his bio, he talks about all the old blues dudes as his influences. Once I went and listened back to the people he was talking about — like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, those kinds of guys — I was like, 'That's the sound I like.'
"I saw that Buddy Guy was coming to town. And I just bought a ticket. I didn't know anything about him, besides that he was in the bio and that he was supposed to be a good blues player. Walking blindly into a Buddy Guy show is just insane. I was not prepared for what I was about to witness. I was completely floored. I couldn't believe what I was watching. I was just looking up on the stage and I was like, 'I don't know what that is, but whatever that is, that's what I want to do.' "
What was your next step?
From there, I just started buying up all the blues records I could … listening to as much as I could ... I'm still buying up all the blues records and listening as much as I can (laughs).
When I was nineteen, I met a Texas blues man named Sonny Rhodes, and he was the next one that really had pushed me and taught me a lot. He actually picked me up in his band and took me all over the U.S. and Canada, and really showed me the lifestyle, what this business is all about, and what is out there.
The big buzz about town is you were recently signed to Alligator records. How did that come about?
I met Bruce Iglauer (president of Alligator Records) at the IBC (International Blues Challenge) in Memphis in 2012. We had won the local competition for the Tampa Bay area. We went up there to compete. We actually made the top nine in the entire competition. Bruce was at the finals. I got a text from somebody that said the president of Alligator records just bought your CD. I was like 'Huh, ain't that something?' (laughs).
I was out there promoting, and I caught a glimpse of him. He saw me, pulled me aside and talked about the band a little bit. I told him 'I was just finishing up some recordings. I'm sure people approach you all the time. If I could get it to you and you could give it a listen, that would be awesome.' He was very interested to hear what we had. I started getting that stuff out to him in early 2012.
What I had done was budget my own recording. We got in the studio, got about five songs I thought were hard-hitting and sounded really good. He told me straight out, 'I think you have half an album. These five songs are great. If you get some (more) tunes to me, maybe we can look at getting you back in the studio on our dime.' That's what ended up happening. I went back to writing some more tunes. I must have sent him 10, 11 songs. He selected another six or seven songs he thought were the better ones. That's where the new album came from. I'm excited to get it out, finally. I'm really excited to have it come out on Alligator.
Some see the blues as a novelty act, a repetition of the past, or a dead art form. What is your reaction to such naysayers?
The people that have that attitude normally aren't in the know of what blues is, and how many different styles of blues there are. You can do a lot with blues. In my humble opinion, blues is like sex: if you get bored with it, maybe you're not doing it right (laughs).
What does playing the blues mean to you?
It means everything to me.