With precious little fanfare, the Birchmere has become the finest showcase club in the Washington area, and, many believe, the finest club for contemporary acoustic music in the country.
The Birchmere? That humble, cafeteria-like bluegrass club across the Potomac in Arlandria?
Some people just haven't been paying attention. On the club's 20th anniversary, it's time they did.
"As far as I'm concerned it's the best listening room in the United States," says country singer-songwriter Guy Clark. "I've played 'em all over and that's the one that takes the most care that everybody's enjoying it -- the audience and the performers, as well."
Says Keith Case, whose Nashville agency handles Clark, John Hartford, Jonathan Edwards and a dozen other Birchmere regulars: "There's no other club in the country where my acts can have repeat performances to turn-away audiences as frequently as we can there. It's an absolute, all-time favorite of every act that I represent."
A great many people have discovered that going to the Birchmere for the first time is like having a blind date with Plain Jane -- and finding out her last name is Seymour. But many other Washington music lovers have not.
"A lot of people don't cross that big ocean to come over to Virginia to hear music, and vice versa," says owner Gary Oelze, who blames cultural and musical stereotypes. The Birchmere may have developed an international reputation based on its bluegrass bookings -- and the decade-long Thursday night residency of the Seldom Scene in particular -- but over the last five years, its palette has expanded to include singer-songwriters, folk acts, Irish and Cajun music and apostles of the new acoustic movement.
"Many people still see it as just a bluegrass club," says Oelze, "and maybe to them a bluegrass club means a joint. I sometimes hear that from new customers who'd stayed away because they thought it was a redneck bar.
"But audiences in this town are really knowledgeable," he adds. "Artists come in and they have the people's attention; for one thing the house ain't louder than them. They know their material, ask for specific songs. Some of the artists go, 'How do you remember that? I don't even remember that!' "
Ian Tyson, a favorite with his ex-wife Sylvia during Washington's '60s folk boom, hadn't played here for 14 years. After a recent jampacked weekend at the 300-seat club, he was awed: "This is the only club like this on the northern continent."
Sylvia Tyson, who came a month later, was relieved "to be in a club where the owner was more interested in the people on stage than interrupting the people eating."
Adds radio veteran Dick Cerri, who has been showcasing new acoustic acts at the Birchmere for the last two years, "Gary Oelze takes running that club as if it is his home and people are his guests."
When Gary Oelze traveled to Europe with the Seldom Scene in 1984, he was shocked to find that being the Birchmere's owner made him a celebrity. "It's a small business with a big reputation," he says.
Back in 1966, he'd opened up the Birchmere as a restaurant and neighborhood bar in an Arlington shopping center. Early on he started having live music on Wednesdays and Saturdays, often featuring an amateur group, the Old Five and Dimers, for which he played guitar. The group was not too good, so he charged no cover.
Had the area not changed and become depressed, the Birchmere might still be just a neighborhood bar. "But all the young government people went to Dale City and Woodbridge, and the place was empty at night, so I started emphasizing the music," Oelze says.
The bands he started hiring played bluegrass -- music that, while popular in the Washington area, had traditionally been treated with about the same respect as lounge music.
"I'm not a big bluegrass fan," Oelze points out, "and I wasn't 'saving bluegrass' like a lot of these guys claim they're doing. I saw that it was a legitimate art form and nobody was treating it right . . . the only place you could hear it was in a dive."
Like the current Birchmere, the original club was short on "nightclub" decor. What set it apart was attitude.
"Right at the time we went to full-time music in 1974 , I said we're going to do it right," Oelze recalls. As a music fan, he had frequented Washington's showcase clubs, the Cellar Door and Childe Harold. "But you couldn't do a 'listening club' with bluegrass music, because a lot of bluegrass fans don't like to go somewhere and behave."
Oelze started making (and still makes) an announcement before each performance: "QUIET PLEASE: In deference to the artists and those who've come to the Birchmere to enjoy the music, SILENCE IS REQUESTED while the perfomers are on stage." The message is repeated on a card placed on the tables. In fact, Oelze confesses, "I stole the phrase 'in deference' from the Cellar Door card. I didn't even know what it meant."
All he knew were its results. "I remember one snowy night there were 24 people in here, and we threw 12 of them out. The point is, the next time they came back, they'd feel they could run the place."
Slowly, the character of the Birchmere crystalized. "The beer was cheap then, the cover charge was cheap, it was a fun thing. We didn't have absolute quiet, but we had order. We gave good sound system and good help and food."The motto, in those days, was "The food ain't good but it's hot."
"I've always said that we sell music first," laughs Oelze.
The club started to build a following, but its major break came in 1975 when Oelze hired the Seldom Scene, which was the regular Thursday band at Bethesda's Red Fox. Its first engagement on a Saturday night provoked a line around the block, and, after a year of alternating Thursdays, Oelze hired the group away from the Red Fox. The band has played every Thursday for more than 10 years, "a longer run in this town than "Banjo Dancing's" Stephen Wade," Oelze notes.
"They made me a legitimate club," he says, "started giving me national recognition. Out-of-town people would come to see them, especially out-of-town pickers. People still call regularly to find out our schedules so they can plan their trips."
The Birchmere made a little trip of its own five years ago, when its old location was torn down. It resettled a few miles away on Mount Vernon Avenue, gaining 100 seats in the bargain. Thursday nights are still solid, with fans coming from around the world to hear the Scene and whoever might be dropping in as a guest. "The time that Linda Ronstadt dropped in to see them, and sang with them, I couldn't have bought that much press," Oelze says. Other drop-ins have included bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, and singer-songwriters John Prine, Vince Gill and the late Steve Goodman, who all arrived the same night.
"Everybody thinks Emmylou Harris used to come down here and sit in, but she never did," Oelze confesses. "I just let 'em think that."
As Oelze started booking national acts, the club's reputation continued to grow. "I stuck with bluegrass because I was making money on it," he says. "I became probably the only club in the country that survived with an acoustic and bluegrass schedule."
His relationship with traditionalists has not always been smooth. Although the Birchmere has sometimes been called the Grand Ole Opry of bluegrass, the country's major bluegrass magazine didn't do a story on the club until 1985, when bluegrass bookings were no longer its staple.
"It's an in-crowd and clique," Oelze says. "l didn't get support for some time because they didn't know me . . . I was pouring $250,000 a year into bluegrass, more than any festival promoter. And I treated it like a business -- people got paid and got a good audience. Most bluegrass people don't do that. That hurt me for a while, but we stuck by it.
"When I opened, we counted 60 bluegrass bands in this town, a dozen working professionally, and a lot of clubs," Oelze says. "Bluegrass brought me to the dance, it put me where I am today, and I feel like I made it a legitimate art form in this town."
For now, though, he's changed partners. Aside from the Seldom Scene, which plays what Oelze classifies as "contemporary acoustic with bluegrass instrumentation," he's cut back bluegrass bookings.
"I'm not abandoning it just because I'm on a different roll," Oelze insists. Traditional bluegrass "doesn't draw for me anymore," though the traditional acts still have plenty of work on the festival circuit. "No bluegrass band aside from Tony Rice whom Oelze is now managing and the Scene can put as many people in here as Schooner Fare," the Maine-based folk trio that cut a live album at the club this past weekend.
"I see it as survival and I have no qualms" about the change, says the Seldom Scene's John Duffey. "The bluegrass traditionalist just won't come out and support anything . . . Gary tried and tried. The only one who gets 'em out is Monroe, and I think they come out because they're always afraid it'll be the last time and they'll never see him again, 'cause he's not exactly a spring chicken."
Ironically, bluegrass may ultimately benefit from the current folk and acoustic boom. After some peak years, it's in another valley, says Oelze. "Folk has saved bluegrass twice in the last 20 years; it'll do it again."
And the increasing presence of acoustic acts simply reflects the current market. "There were a lot of clubs around, but there's not now," Oelze points out, "so I have the availability."
That's not all he has, of course.
The Birchmere has personality plus. It's not just the checkered tablecloths, the sudden community of people thrown together at tables, the signed photos and newspaper clips that occupy various walls, the basement record store, or Pudge, the imposing doorman who looks like Oak Ridge Boy William Golden's brother. Oelze may well be the last of the genuine hands-on club owners: He runs the sound board himself, fills in as cook on occasion, and sometimes even winds up as the dishwasher.
"My help has a personality that's unreal," he says. "There's people that always want to sit in Linda's section, or Terry's. There's a lot of friends. Linda has been working here 10 years: A guy came in the other night and gave her a $2,000 camera outfit 'cause one night her camera broke."
The end result is some badly needed word-of-mouth., not just for the Birchmere but for nightclubs in general. "I need people used to going out to see live music," says Oelze. "You start going home on a Friday night and lying on the couch, it gets to be real habit-forming."
Of course, there's been a downside to success: Wolf Trap, the Barns in particular, has appropriated many acts that Oelze has taken the time to develop at the Birchmere. "I bitch about it," he says, but adds that "it probably helps me more than it hurts me because it's a whole audience that would never think of coming here. But if they see an act at Wolf Trap, then they may come here."
The Birchmere's advantage, says Allison Lee, a booking agent who works with many Irish acts, is that "if somebody plays there that isn't well known, they still usually draw a crowd. People will just go to the Birchmere, because they know whatever they have in there will be good."
The Celtic expansion came "just a little at a time," Oelze says. "But I found an audience, just like I'm starting to do with Cajun: There's an audience there that I didn't even know existed." Next month Oelze will make his first stab at comedy with the Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre and, he says, "I'd like to be able to do country. But I don't think anybody in this town has ever been able to do that." He had Ricky Skaggs twice when Skaggs (who'd performed there often in his bluegrass days) was making his transformation to country superstar ("now I can't afford him") and has presented such great songwriters as Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash.
A series of intimate song cycles that those three did last year ranked as a genuine highlight of Washington music in 1985. There's probably no other club that would have afforded those performers the kind of living-room intimacy in which they could trade songs and stories and reveal so much about themselves.
"We really enjoyed playing like that," says Clark (he'll be back Saturday). "The Birchmere is the perfect place to do it."
"Every band in the business would like to have a Birchmere," says the Scene's Duffey. "We have a golden horseshoe, to live here and to have this happen here. In winter, when bands are, out of lack of a better expression, starving, we're not because we know we can buy the groceries and pay the mortgage."
Still, says Oelze, "it's always a crap shoot. Somebody asked me how did I know what will work. I said I didn't, just what isn't working right now."
The club does not take reservations, which sometimes provokes flurries of phone calls as to how long the line is around the block. first-come," Oelze says. Which doesn't stop people from trying to bribe Pudge ("he loves it") or those waiting in line. "Once a Texan paid two guys 50 bucks to let him and his wife have their place in line."
Not surprisingly, the Birchmere has its loyalists, including presidential Press Secretary James Brady, who'd often come down to see the Seldom Scene with his wife Sarah and friends. One night Sarah Brady called ahead to ask her favorite waitress, Linda Hodge, to hold a table, suggesting there would be "a surprise."
"When they came to the door I looked up and the wheelchair was empty at the front door," Hodge recalls. "I started freaking out, and then he came in with two canes and walked down the aisle to his table, hollering 'Lovely Linda.' I gave him a hug and cried."
"It's a labor of love on Gary's part, and it's just marvelous what he does," says Guy Clark. "You have to really dedicate your life to it; it can't be something you think you're going to get rich quick at. There ought to be some way to franchise the Birchmere and have 'em everywhere."