The Birchmere celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016
The unassuming venue is tucked behind an auto parts store on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria. A sign out front denotes the night’s performance, a sold-out Travis Tritt show, showtime: 7:30 p.m.
Inside, owner Gary Oelze flips through a binder filled with mementos from years gone by. In the corner of the conference room sit two life-size cutouts of him.”My wife thought that was funny,” he says.
There are a dozen of them tucked away in the venue, a tangible metaphor for his decades-long oversight of all aspects of the club.
“I’d just gotten out of the military and came to this area,” says Oelze, after deciding at 24 that “military life wasn’t for me.” In 1966, he took over The Birchmere, then a popular bar in Shirlington. As the bar’s live music became prominent, Oelze began to shift the venue’s focus, reinventing The Birchmere as a bluegrass-centric concert hall, an anomaly at the time. Since then, it’s moved twice: once to Alexandria and again just down the street to its current location.
Michael Jaworek, the club’s booking agent since 1987, leads the way down a hallway lined with photos of acts that have performed here, including Leo Kottke, Ray Charles—his last live performance was at The Birchmere—and The Seldom Scene, who had a 20-year residency at the club starting in the ’70s.
Michael Clem, guitarist and vocalist for local folk-rock band Eddie From Ohio, has played The Birchmere regularly; the band’s first show was here in 1991, and they recorded their debut album, EFO Live at the Birchmere, here. The Birchmere is a quiet listening venue “where the lyrics shine and you can hear the nuances in songs,” Clem says.
“The only thing we don’t play is metal or rap because the geography of the room just isn’t suited for that,” says Jaworek.
Oelze echoes, “It’s more of an older person’s type of music club, in that we start all the shows at 7:30. So on a work night, you can be home in time to watch the late news and get up in the morning for work.” He and Jaworek both note that not a day goes by that they aren’t excited to go to work at The Birchmere.
After all the renowned acts that have played there—Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash all once shared the bill—“I still can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” says Oelze.
( March 2016 )