If American blues artists are familiar with one constant throughout the entirety of the genre’s history, it’s being properly appreciated long after they’re gone. The icons of early delta blues would never know the infectious spread of their craft through generations of blues musicians. All too often, however, Europeans would take note of these artists. They loved American blues — and arguably still do — more than Americans.
When I met Mark Otis Selby, I was nine years old. He hadn’t yet adopted his middle name into his official moniker. It was at Guitar Town, a free annual music festival in Copper Mountain, Colorado, that stood as the bastion of the small ski town’s only major event out-of-season. I didn’t see Selby for nearly ten years after that, meeting him again when I was 18 at the same venue.
I never had the opportunity to see him perform live often because, much like his bluesy forefathers, Americans didn’t take to him the way they should have. He spent much time touring Europe with his wife, Tia Sillers, and when he did get recognition on a larger scale, it was for penning songs for the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the Dixie Chicks. (Yes, Mark was the “Blue on Black” guy.”)
For half my life, I listened to Selby’s work because he was so much more than that. “Back Door to My Heart,” “More Storms Comin,’” and “Blind Since Birth” hold as steadfast and impressive against the years as any other notable American blues songs of the last four decades. He was a tactful, inspiring guitarist and he was a honed, passionate lyricist.
This spring, I found myself digging back through Selby’s catalog, as I’ve been wont to do for many years now. That’s when I happened upon news of his death. The everyday music press, unfortunately, didn’t cover his passing as they should have. As cancer does, it took someone far too young with far too much left to do.
Looking back on Selby’s life, it’s imperative to broaden one’s scope beyond the radio hits he penned for others — as wonderful as they may be — to appreciate the intensity and prowess of albums like “More Storms Comin’” and “Dirt.” Mark Otis Selby deserves more than a footnote in the lineage of American blues.
He lived and breathed the craft and his soul was on full display with each new record. On a personal level, his music and kindness during the brief meet-and-greets I had with him pushed me toward becoming a musician, too. He will be well missed, and the “Naked” recordings his family has released after his passing are, unsurprisingly, both hauntingly beautiful and a perfect introduction to his life work.
Check out Selby’s work on his official website here, which houses the aforementioned posthumous release well worth listening to.