All roads lead to Birchmere

Sometimes the best times are unplanned. For Rosanne Cashthe eldest daughter of Johnny Cashan impromptu performance at Birchmere decades ago was one of those times. For four hours, Rosanne In cash, alongside Rodney Crowell and Guy Clarkperformed songs and shared stories on a night Washington Post described as “a true highlight of Washington’s music in 1985”. This piece also described the venue as “the best showcase club in the Washington area and, according to many, the best club for contemporary acoustic music in the country”. A statement with which many continue to agree.

Cash, Crowell and Clark’s performance may be a momentary highlight for some, but it will be saved forever, thanks to a new post through Gary Oelze and stephen moore, All roads lead to Birchmere: the legendary American music hall. Oelze owns and operates the Birchmere; Moore is a retired Georgetown University music writer, musician and technologist.

“With the Birchmere, it’s always like a homecoming, always welcoming,” Cash is quoted in the book. “They are always enthusiastic. They give you plenty of leeway to make mistakes. They are so present. It is one of the best halls in the country. »

Cash is one of more than 160 artists who were interviewed for All roads. Although each artist may differ in their story, lyrics and legacy, they all have one thing in common: they have nothing but good things to say about Birchmere. Located in Alexandria, the part restaurant, part music and comedy venue opened in 1966 with Oelze as co-founder.

For those who have graced hall halls, one cannot help but notice that the Birchmere walls do the talking. As described in the book, a major hallway runs through the hall densely filled with hundreds of framed posters, signed by some of the many artists who have performed there over the decades. Since opening, the venue has hosted more than 3,300 musical parties and “probably 9,000” artists, says Moore city ​​paper.

Regarding the book, which was released in November 2021, Oelze says, “It’s about music…even if you’re unfamiliar with DC or this field, you’ll enjoy the artists’ musical stories.”

All roads details the many performances the Birchmere has hosted, from bluegrass, country, folk and rock to blues, R&B, Celtic and Cajun. Comedy shows are also often held on site. Performers have included Rosanne and Johnny Cash, Ray Charles (who played his last gig at Birchmere), BB King, Little Richard, Leon Russell, Julian and Sean Lenon, Billy Bob Thorton (with his group of six musicians The Boxmasters), John Waters, The Bacon Brothers, Paula Poundstone, Steven Seagal, isaac hayesand David Byrne of talking heads. The Birchmere is also known for its famous guests such as the former President bill clintonformer first lady hillary clintonand former vice-president Al Gore.

Photo courtesy of Gary Oelze (third from right)

Over the course of nearly 500 pages, the book describes the stories of many of these pioneering figures, groups, comedians and other artists who graced the Alexandria stage. local musician Brown “truncated”, who played soft jazz with a Hammond B3 organ on Sundays, was the first to perform at the restaurant. Many of the earliest artists were bluegrass bands – the genre had a large following in the DC area from the late 1960s to the early 70s. Because of this trend, the book explains, the local public radio station WAMU created the Bluegrass Unlimited radio broadcast in 1968. And one band is especially credited with being one of the main reasons the Birchmere has become such a successful venue.

The scene rarely was “the most exciting act in bluegrass music” and “the driving force of modern bluegrass” in 1976, according to All roads. The Birchmere became the band’s home for around 20 years, increasing the venue’s popularity alongside rare stage success.

“I always say this: there would have been no Birchmere if there hadn’t been Rarely Scene. They made me a legitimate club,” Oelze says in the book. “In return, I also created a decent club for them.”

While bluegrass has helped Birchmere establish itself as a local venue worth watching, folk and Celtic music have solidified the place as a multi-genre hit. During the 2006 tribute to Woody Guthriea singer Pete Seeger carried out, which, according to the To post, received “several standing ovations, the first simply for showing up”.

In an interview with city ​​paper, Moore said, “It’s not just an oldies club…The reason it’s going on…is because Gary has always presented the best sound. The sound in this room is superb.

He adds, “It’s an older pattern because it’s a dinner theater type pattern…I think that pattern might just continue because who doesn’t want to have a good meal and see a show?”

While All roads lead to Birchmere begins with a brief introduction to Oelze, the majority of the book deals with the lives and legacies of the artists who performed, as well as their thoughts on what it was like to play the Birchmere. But time and time again, Oelze remains ubiquitous.

“I had the feeling that [Oelze] had this ability to understand, to experience his role without being practical, without being too interactive, but that he knew what his role was”, singer-songwriter Dar Williams says in the book.

Born and raised in Owensboro, Kentucky, Oelze has a storied past as a musician, Air Force veteran, and barbecue restaurant manager. Prior to opening the Birchmere, he ran a Peoples Drug store in a Seven Corners shopping mall. It was here that he finally befriended the Baltimore native William Hooper, who helped lead the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Association. Hooper offered Oelze to manage and operate a restaurant he planned to purchase. Together they took control of Birchmere, officially, on April 4, 1966. (Hooper died of a heart attack in 1980.)

If Oelze succeeded, however, he would remain the man behind the curtains. “I don’t want anyone to think that I started the Birchmere as a vanity project,” Oelze wrote in All roads.

Oelze tells city ​​paper“I’ve always been afraid to put it on paper… I go to work every day. I love it. I never felt like going to work. So I never had a job , I always say.

Although uninterested in being the face, Moore was eventually able to convince Oelze to collaborate on creating what Moore describes as an “honest book”. The two met in 1984, but Moore only suggested writing Birchmere’s story after interviewing Oelze for the book. The bluegrass life of John Duffey, which was published in 2019. Initially, Oelze wanted to create a photobook, but Moore wanted to write the story of the place. The two compromises.

Photo courtesy of Gary Oelze

The Birchmere has outlived its original contemporaries, including the Cellar Door music club in Georgetown and the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, which was once known as the epicenter of bluegrass in the DC area before the Birchmere took over. arrives and does not land on the Seldom stage as a regular act. . Moore tells city ​​paper the group is “the greatest achievement” of the place.

“I’m going to be 80 this year,” says Oelze, adding, “I’m in good health, so I expect the Birchmere to be here for another 55 years.”

All roads lead to Birchmere can be found at $24.95 to $36.95.

About Debra D. Johnson

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