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Sometimes, the best moments are unplanned. For Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, an impromptu show at the Birchmere several decades ago was one of those moments. For four hours, Rosanne Cash, alongside Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark, performed songs and shared stories on a night the Washington Post described as “a genuine highlight of Washington music in 1985.” That piece also described the venue as “the finest showcase club in the Washington area, and, many believe, the finest club for contemporary acoustic music in the country.” A statement many continue to agree with.
Cash, Crowell, and Clark’s performance may be a momentary highlight for some, but it will forever be recorded, thanks to a new publication by Gary Oelze and Stephen Moore, All Roads Lead to the Birchmere: America’s Legendary Music Hall. Oelze is the owner and operator of the Birchmere; Moore is a music writer, musician, and retired Georgetown University technologist.
“With the Birchmere, it’s always like a homecoming, always welcoming,” Cash is quoted in the book. “They’re always enthusiastic. They give you a lot of slack to make mistakes. They’re so present. It’s one of the great venues in the country.”
Cash is one of more than 160 artists who were interviewed for All Roads. While each artist may differ in their histories, their lyrics, and their legacies, they all have one thing in common: They only have good things to say about the Birchmere. Located in Alexandria, the part-restaurant, part-music and comedy venue opened its doors in 1966 with Oelze as co-founder.
For those who have graced the halls of the venue, one can’t help but notice that the Birchmere walls do talk. As described in the book, a major hallway runs through the venue densely packed with hundreds of framed posters, signed by some of the many artists that have performed there over the decades. Since opening, the venue has hosted more than 12,000* nights of music and “probably 9,000” artists, Moore tells City Paper.
Regarding the book, which was published in November 2021, Oelze says, “It’s about music … even if you’re not familiar with D.C. or this area, you’ll appreciate the music stories from the artists.”
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 also frequently take place at the venue. Performers have included Rosanne and Johnny Cash, Ray Charles (who played his final show at the Birchmere), B.B. King, Little Richard, Leon Russell, Julian and Sean Lennon, Billy Bob Thornton (with his six-piece band The Boxmasters), John Waters, The Bacon Brothers, Paula Poundstone, Steven Seagal, Isaac Hayes, and David Byrne of Talking Heads. The Birchmere is also known for its famous guests such as former President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Hillary Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore.
Over the course of nearly 500 pages, the book outlines the history of many of these pioneering figures, bands, comedians, and other artists who’ve graced the Alexandria stage. Local musician “Stumpy” Brown, who played mellow jazz with a Hammond B3 organ on Sundays, was the first to play the restaurant venue. Many of the earliest entertainers were bluegrass bands—the genre had a large following in the D.C. area from the late 1960s to early ’70s. Because of this trend, the book explains, local public radio station WAMU premiered the Bluegrass Unlimited radio program in 1968. And one band is specially credited for being a major reason why the Birchmere became such a successful venue.
The Seldom Scene was “the most exciting act in bluegrass music” and “the driving force for modern bluegrass” by 1976, according to All Roads. The Birchmere became the band’s home for approximately 20 years, growing the venue’s popularity alongside the Seldom Scene’s own success.
“I always say this: There wouldn’t have been a Birchmere if it weren’t for the Seldom Scene. They made me a legitimate club,” Oelze says in the book. “In return, I made a decent club for them, too.”
While bluegrass helped the Birchmere gain its footing as a local venue worth keeping a keen eye on, folk and Celtic music solidified the place as a multi-genre success. At the 2006 tribute to Woody Guthrie, singer Pete Seeger performed, which, according to the Post, received “multiple standing ovations, the first simply for showing up.”
In an interview with City Paper, Moore says, “It’s not just an oldies club … The reason why it’s endured … is because Gary has always featured the best sound. The sound of that hall is superb.”
He adds, “It is an older model because it’s a dinner theater type model … I think that model might just continue because who doesn’t want to have a nice meal and see a show?”
While All Roads Lead to the Birchmere starts with a brief introduction to Oelze, the majority of the book discusses the life and legacy 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 omnipresent.
“I got the sense that [Oelze] had that ability to understand, to experience his role without being hands-on, without being too interactive, but that he knew what his role is,” singer-songwriter Dar Williams says in the book.
Born and raised in Owensboro, Kentucky, Oelze has a storied past: musician, Air Force veteran, and manager of a barbecue restaurant. Before he opened the Birchmere, he was managing a Peoples Drug store in a Seven Corners shopping center. It was here that he eventually befriended Baltimore native William Hooper, who helped direct the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Association. Hooper offered Oelze the job of managing and operating a restaurant he planned to buy. Together they took over the Birchmere, officially, on April 4, 1966. (Hooper died of a heart attack in 1980.)
If Oelze had his way, though, he would remain the man behind the curtains. “I don’t want anyone to think that I started the Birchmere as some vanity project,” Oelze writes in All Roads.
Oelze tells City Paper, “I was always afraid to put it on paper … I go to work every day. I love it. Never have I ever not wanted to go to work. So, I never had a job, I always say.”
Though uninterested in being the face, Moore was able to eventually sway Oelze into collaborating on creating what Moore describes as an “honest book.” The two met in 1984, but Moore didn’t suggest writing the Birchmere’s history until after he interviewed Oelze for the book John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life, which was published in 2019. Initially, Oelze wanted to create a photo book, but Moore wanted to write the history of the venue. The two compromised.
The Birchmere has outlasted its original contemporaries, including Georgetown’s long-gone Cellar Door music club and Bethesda’s Red Fox Inn, which was once known as the epicenter of bluegrass in the D.C. area before the Birchmere swooped in and landed the Seldom Scene as a regular act. Moore tells City Paper the band is “the greatest success story” of the venue.
“I’m going to be 80 years old this year,” says Oelze, adding, “I’m healthy, and so I expect the Birchmere to be around for another 55 years.”
All Roads Lead to the Birchmere can be found at booklocker.com. $24.95–$36.95.
Editor’s note: All Roads Lead to the Birchmere‘s foreword said there’s been an estimated “3,300 nights of music.” That number is incorrect and has been updated in the piece.