The Birchmere celebrates 50th anniversary

birchThe legendary bluegrass music listening venue in Alexandria, Virginia, The Birchmere, passed its 50th anniversary on April 4.

Initially, the bar, with a capacity of between 150 and 200 seats, was located in Shirlington – just down the highway from the Pentagon – and served beer and fried food.

In 1981 owner Gary Oelze moved the establishment to its first location on Mount Vernon Avenue and when the lease there expired in 1996, it moved to 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, where it has been ever since. This location has seats for 500 diners in what’s known as The Music Room and from 2012, the capacity could be increased to 1000 with the opening of what’s known as the Band Stand.

Before becoming a music venue, the bar and restaurant served members of the military forces and government workers mostly.

Oelze began by booking bluegrass and folk artists – initially only on Wednesday, and then on Wednesday and Saturday nights – as he was concerned about being able to attract customers if he had music more frequently. Unlike in other bars, where bluegrass bands found themselves competing with other attractions like a pool table, a pinball machine or a TV, Oelze made music the focus with no distractions. Very early on a local group, Hickory Wind, sold out with just a cover charge and Oelze then realized that music at the Birchmere was going to do well.

The BirchmereFrom late 1977 the Seldom Scene played at The Birchmere almost every Thursday night. Originally, their appearances were irregular but, together the band and venue became famous together.

As indicated, Oelze books a variety of acts, not just bluegrass bands, with notable performers like the David Edwards Band, American singer-songwriters Jerry Jeff Walker and John Hiatt, Vince Gill, Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris all welcome. He puts on shows by jazz acts such as Keiko Matsui and Maysa Leak, and other shows include those by saxophonist Euge Groove and by R&B singer Ray Charles also.

Tom Gray, bass player with the Country Gentlemen and then the Seldom Scene, provides more detail ……

Tom Gray“We (the Seldom Scene) first played the Birchmere, at its first location, in Arlington, Virginia, as a one-night stand on February 7, 1976, then another on March 13. At the time, I believe the music there was pop-country. The owner, Gary Oelze, wanted us to come back on a regular basis. We had been playing every Thursday at the Red Fox in Bethesda, Maryland. Gary convinced us to alternate between the Fox and the Birchmere. We started alternating between the two clubs in April 1976. That continued until September of 1977.  In October 1977, we switched to the Birchmere every Thursday. Shortly thereafter, the Red Fox went out of business. We always drew good crowds there, in Arlington, and when it first moved to Alexandria.

The first Birchmere seated about 100, the second one about 150. After I left the Scene in 1987, the Birchmere moved to its current location where it can seat 300.

I feared that this larger club may be too big to support a local bluegrass band, even the Seldom Scene. My fears came true in the early 1990s when the Scene started playing there only a few times a year. Fortunately, for today’s Scene, they do still play there a few times a year.

I remember many good times when other artists would join us on the Birchmere stage. People like Bill Monroe, Jethro Burns, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, John Hartford. Hartford was kind enough to hire me for one night shortly after I left the Scene in 1987.”

Fred Travers, resophonic guitar player with the Seldom Scene, is a comparative late-comer to the iconic club ……

Fred Travers - photo by Christy Reid“I found the Birchmere around 1981, following my new acquired interest and introduction to bluegrass music by the Seldom Scene. The Scene had been around for 10 years at that point, but hey, better late than never. I saw so many great bands and performers there through the years after that.

Over now 20 years with the Seldom Scene, I have performed at the ‘Birch’ many times with the Seldom Scene, including tributes to John Duffey, Mike Auldridge and the 40th anniversary of the Scene. Every performance, always a musical adventure, for sure, each very special in their own way.

Looking back, I think my most favorite memory of playing the Birchmere was New Year’s Eve 1995, when I was introduced by John Starling and performed for the first time with John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Dudley Connell and Ronnie Simpkins as a member of the Seldom Scene. Every now and then in life the most incredible, unimaginable, things happen.”

On April 5, 1983, the Johnson Mountain Boys recorded a ‘live’ album at the Birchmere (Live at the Birchmere, Rounder 0191). It was released in LP and cassette format the following year and as a CD in 1994.

Here’s a reminder of WAMU DJ Red Shipley’s most eloquent introduction ….

Red Shipey at WAMU - photo by Phil Audibert “Well, good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Birchmere. I’m sure that most of you know why you’re here, to take part in a what’s going to be a very, very special evening here. You know live albums traditionally reflect an air of excitement between the groups performing and the audiences listening and I think even more so tonight than is the norm because this group has put a lot of excitement back into bluegrass music listening, I know for myself, because they combine a great reverence for the traditions of the music with a tremendous youthful exuberance and excitement that carries across obviously to you their many fans.

So let’s all enjoy right now the making of this great Live at the Birchmere with the Johnson Mountain Boys……..”

The Birchmere is located at 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia 22305 (703-549-7500).

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.