In 1966, Gary Oelze bought a small bar and restaurant next to an A&P in a now-long-gone South Arlington shopping center. He didn’t change the restaurant’s name, the Birchmere, but he added entertainment: “I needed to spruce up night business,” Oelze said. “I started having a folk singer or bluegrass band one night a week, and then it grew.”
Indeed, it did. In the following decade, the D.C. area became a bluegrass hotbed, and the Birchmere was the epicenter of the fleet-fingered action. The venue’s consistent draw was the Seldom Scene, an edgy local string outfit that took traditional bluegrass to the fringe of rock at a weekly Thursday night show. The residency started in 1975 and lasted nearly two decades, along the way building buzz that put the Birchmere — then a no-frills, cafeteria-like dive with barely enough room for 100 people — on the map as an internationally known music destination.
With plenty of talent coming through the door, Oelze fostered friendships with notable acts and diligently kept audiences focused on the music. He posted signs on tables asking for quiet while bands played, and didn’t hesitate to remove patrons for excessive talking. “This was legitimate music, so I figured why not treat it that way?” said Oelze, who still owns the venue.
As years passed, the Birchmere grew into bigger spaces; it moved to its third location at 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria in 1997. The current building, which welcomes guests with colorful music-themed murals, includes two performance spaces, a bandstand with an open dance floor and a 500-seat listening room that features closely spaced, dinner-theater-style seating, maintaining the intimate atmosphere of the club’s early days. The venue’s musical scope has also widened, moving beyond bluegrass to feature roots music of all stripes, and often welcoming icons in blues, folk, jazz, country, R&B and rock.
With the club celebrating 50 years in business this spring, we asked artists that best know the Birchmere stage to share memorable experiences and explain what’s special about the renowned music hall.
BEN ELDRIDGE , banjo player and founding member of the Seldom Scene
“We played the Birchmere every Thursday night for almost 20 years. During the early years we were really an informal bunch of pickers. It was like guys getting together for a weekly card game; just trying to have a good time. [Late mandolin player and singer] John [Duffey] did most of the emcee work, and sometimes he would have us laughing so hard we could barely play. The crowds loved it.
“When the residency built a reputation, a lot of musicians started showing up and playing with us. A lot of famous folks would stop in, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou [Harris]. During one of the best nights, I remember Vince Gill, Steve Goodman, John Prine and Peter Rowan all came. . . . They took the stage one at a time, and everybody in the room was wired with excitement.
“We’d play early gigs, start at 8 and play a 45-minute set; then wait until a quarter after 9 and do another one. We’d be done a little after 10, and John [Duffey] would get right out of there. One night Bob Dylan was in town, and his manager called the Birchmere and asked if we could hold the last set until 11 so Bob could get there and hear us. All of us were excited, but John said, ‘Nope, I’m going home.’ So Bob was the one we never got to meet.”
CHRIS ELDRIDGE , Punch Brothers guitarist and son of Ben Eldridge
“I basically grew up at the Birchmere. As a boy we lived in Fredericksburg, and I would drive up with my dad for his shows. I have memories of just hanging out and eating pretzels while he was playing. I remember an atmosphere where music was a sacred, serious thing; people came to listen. That reverent vibe affected how I look at the whole idea of playing music.
“When I was 15, I played with the Seldom Scene for the first time at a festival in Harper’s Ferry and then again later that night at the Birchmere, so it was a part of the first day I played onstage. Over time that became more frequent, and eventually I was playing whole sets. When the Punch Brothers played the Birchmere for the first time it felt like a real accomplishment, personally, considering my family history there.”
JERRY DOUGLAS , 14-time Grammy Award- winning dobro player
“Ricky Skaggs and I were in a band called Boone Creek. In the winter of 1978 we were about to break up and play the Birchmere as our final show. The night before we played in Boston, so we were driving down in some of the worst road conditions imaginable. We ran out of windshield wiper fluid, and the front of our van froze over, right beside the Newark Airport. We called Gary Oelze to tell him we weren’t going to make it, and he said, ‘If you guys can get to the airport and get on a plane, I’ll buy the tickets.’
“He bought the plane tickets and paid our fee — didn’t bat an eye. We were blubbering messes when we finally got there and played our last show, but really for me that was the start of a 40-year relationship. I’ve now played the Birchmere countless times with many different acts. It really is a special place — a landmark for musicians in many genres of music.”
MAYSA LEAK , jazz singer and Baltimore native
“The Birchmere feels like my home. Every time I perform there it’s a big party. The audience is so genuine and real. The picnic-style tables create a relaxed energy, and that makes it feel like a family environment.
“I’ve recorded two live albums at the Birchmere — both really special nights. The second one [recorded in 2014, still forthcoming] in particular was one of my favorite shows, because I had a string section, three horns and percussion — my big jazz-funk-soul orchestra. To have that show recorded, surrounded by the Birchmere’s incredible lighting, it made me feel like a superstar. As a person who’s worked in the music industry for 25 years, I can tell you that doesn’t happen everywhere.”
RICKY SKAGGS , 14-time Grammy Award-winning bluegrass mandolin player and singer
“There’s a sweetness about the Birchmere that always makes me want to come back. The way everyone sits together, it almost feels like a fish house in Carolina. It’s a warm and receptive atmosphere, but knowing that the audience sees so much music, I always feel like I need to play my best.
“Every January I play my first shows of the year there with Kentucky Thunder. We work on new songs to see how they fly, and that helps us set the tone for the rest of the year. The Birchmere has a great crowd that’s willing to let us showcase new things. Sadly, it will never be the same without Justice [Antonin] Scalia. He came to see us at the Birchmere all the time, including this past January. That’s why it was so heartbreaking when he passed right after that. He loved classical music and bluegrass, and playing the Birchmere without him in the audience will certainly be a change.”
Skaggs performs at the Birchmere on Wednesday and Thursday with Ry Cooder and Sharon White.
JOHN HIATT , four-decade Americana singer-songwriter and recording artist
“The Birchmere is a real-deal music room; you always feel close to the crowd. It’s a place that’s become a tradition, where I can comfortably play for a couple nights in a row. My fondest memory is when we came through with the Four Horsemen, me and Lyle [Lovett] and Joe [Ely] and Guy Clark. Knowing the history of all the great music that’s come through the Birchmere always makes me inspired to play there.
“The venue has a washer and dryer, so in the early years it was great knowing you could do your laundry. Little things like that mean a lot when you’re on the road. On our rider we used to include two rotisserie chickens, and once when we came in [promoter] Ben [Finkelstein] had them sitting on the drier. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m keeping them warm for you.’ It matters when you find a place that treats you well.”
Hiatt will play two acoustic shows at the Birchmere on April 26 and 27.
VINCE GILL , country singer, multi-instrumentalist, and multi-platinum recording artist
“I’ve been coming to the Birchmere for 40 years. My history with the venue starts with bluegrass. Back in the day, traveling musicians didn’t have a whole lot of options to play and hear bluegrass, so I always think of it as the patriarch club. When I was in town the thing to do was go watch the [Seldom] Scene hold court at the Birchmere. When I first met those guys and started playing with them, I was partial to the late Mike Auldridge, because I was a young dobro player in my teenage years.
“When I was getting started in the ’70s there were so many great music clubs around the country; places where you could count on people to be serious about listening to music. There are now less and less as time has gone on. I know what it’s like to play a big casino with a crowd that’s fairly indifferent, so it means something to have a place that’s still as reliable as the Birchmere. You know the people in the audience are going to be just as passionate about the music as the band on stage. As a performer you want that connection to go both ways.”
Gill returns to the Birchmere on April 20 with the Time Jumpers.
DEBI SMITH , singer with the Four Bitchin’ Babes and wife of Birchmere promoter Michael Jaworek
“In 1984 my sister [Megan] and I had just recorded our first album [‘Bluebird,’ released as the Smith Sisters] . . . and we’d just finished a tour in Russia. We came back and played the Birchmere, and I have this vivid memory of the line to get in wrapped all the way around the building. That was such a thrill for us to get that kind of reception.
“When we play the Birchmere with the [Four Bitchin’] Babes the audiences are fabulous; nothing gets past them. They’re with you from the first note that comes out of your mouth, and they get every joke. That energy comes back to you, especially in a room like the Birchmere. It’s sophisticated but also has a down-home feeling.”
3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-549-7500. birchmere.com.
Shows this weekend include Bob Schneider with Karen Jonas (Friday); Tom Rush (Saturday); and Riders in the Sky (Sunday).