By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Gary Oelze, who owned and founded the acclaimed Birchmere music hall, died on Monday of congestive heart failure. He was 80.
Oelze was born on Aug. 24, 1942 in Owensboro, Kentucky to S.V. Oelze and Carmelia Hagan. He was the third of seven children, six of whom were boys, according to “All Roads Lead to The Birchmere,” a book he wrote with Stephen Moore. Oelze’s father was a restaurateur who also ran a grocery store and later a successful roofing company. Oelze learned to play the guitar as a child and formed a band with his brother and a neighborhood friend at age 15.
After finishing school, Oelze left Kentucky for the Air Force and the D.C. area. In the mid-1960s, upon completing his military service, he was managing a Peoples Drug store in Arlington when a friend approached him about a business opportunity. The friend was going to buy the Birchmere Restaurant, at the time a small food-only establishment, and asked Oelze to manage it. Oelze said yes.
The Birchmere Restaurant originally served German food, according to “All Roads Lead To The Birchmere,” a book on the Birchmere’s 50-year history that Oelze wrote in 2021 with Stephen Moore. Oelze quickly changed the menu to burgers and fries, which led to a steady lunchtime crowd, and the establishment developed a thriving bar scene at night.
In the mid-70s, Oelze decided to add live music, and it was his own band, The Old Five and Dimers, that first began playing at the Birchmere. Early on, Oelze mainly booked bluegrass bands, tapping into what was then a thriving D.C.-area bluegrass scene. Progressive bluegrass stalwarts The Seldom Scene have been a mainstay at the Birchmere through the years, and Oelze also booked Alison Krauss back when she was a fiddling prodigy.
Oelze quickly expanded the Birchmere’s offerings, and they grew to eventually include traditional country, outlaw country, zydeco, folk, jazz, blues and other genres. The music hall has hosted a wide range of performers through the years, from iconic figures like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris to former teen heartthrob David Cassidy to the alt-folk performer Suzanne Vega to Texas outlaw troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker – who played the Birchmere 133 times – to the legendary Gordon Lightfoot.
In “All Roads Lead to The Birchmere,” former Washington Post music critic Buzz McClain wrote:
“In the history of regional performance promotion, Gary Oelze has been the club owner responsible for entertaining the Mid-Atlantic since 1975. That’s over 12,000 nights of music, across almost five decades. Top that, and if you can, I apologize, but I think I’m on firm ground here.”
Moore said it was Oelze’s focus on the musician’s experience that has made the Birchmere such a favorite of artists from around the country.
“He was telling me sort of his philosophy of running the club and how he wanted to do things for the people,” Moore said. “These guys were coming off the bus [and] they were dirty. Their managers were telling them to take towels from the hotel room, so [Gary] made a shower and got them a washing machine to do their clothes. … The musicians talk among themselves … and the word went out really soon that ‘You’ve got to go to the Birchmere, Gary Oelze’s really great.’”
Mandolinist Dan Shipp also emphasized Oelze’s focus on musical quality in “All Roads Lead To The Birchmere:”
“It was immediately apparent that Gary was extremely interested in sound quality and investing his profits into improvements. He didn’t want a noisy bar with the band in the corner,” Shipp said.
From that focus on the musician came an atmosphere that led to amazing nights of music, according to Pete Kennedy, half of the local folk-rock band The Kennedys with his wife Maura.
“On any given night, you might wander in and encounter John Prine, Rodney Crowell or even Linda Rondstadt sitting in with the band. That was all Gary’s doing,” Kennedy said in a statement he sent to Birchmere employee Ben Finkelstein. “No one else could have created the atmosphere that he made happen, and when the lights went down and he intoned, ‘there will be no talking while the performances are onstage,’ it was a cue that magic might happen, and it did, probably on more nights than on any other stage anywhere. That’s a big statement, but Gary had a big vision, and he achieved it. His loss leaves a void that won’t be filled in the bedrock of American roots music.”
Oelze was also quick to lend a helping hand to new and unknown artists, such as former Alexandria resident Mary Chapin Carpenter, who went on to become a platinum-selling star.
“If I had never met Gary, I wholeheartedly believe that I wouldn’t have a career in music,” Chapin Carpenter posted on the Birchmere’s Facebook page. “He was the manager and owner of The Birchmere Music Hall and he believed in me enough back in the day to offer me opening sets for nationally known artists, as well as helping me to afford my cherished Greven #1 guitar – he pulled a few strings (pun intended) to make that happen when I didn’t have a clue how I was going to pay for it. Most significantly, he talked me up to a CBS Records scout who was looking around for new acts to sign, and within a year I was a Columbia artist.”
Kennedy also paid tribute to Oelze’s support of excellent, but little-known musicians.
“Over the years … I’ve played [the Birchmere] close to a hundred times, on my own sometimes but most often in creative teamwork with the great songwriters and instrumentalists who came through the ‘best venue on the road.’ The one common denominator that linked all those great nights of music was Gary Oelze, who not only owned the place but was a tireless, relentless supporter of independent music,” Kennedy said in a statement.
The Birchmere’s long-time accountant, Charles Ballou, said that one of Oelze’s strengths was his knack of taking chances with booking acts.
“Every day you have agents proposing performers and their price. Of course Gary utilized the expertise of Michael Jaworek and Ben Finklestein as his ‘talent buyers.’ Michael and Ben put the proposals to Gary every day – but it was up to Gary to make the decision on how much to pay the performers,” Ballou said. “The Birchmere would be bound by this contract no matter how many tickets they could sell for a performance. You win some and you lose some. Over the years Gary’s ability to take good calculated risks served the Birchmere well.”
Long-time radio host Lee Michael Demsey spoke to Oelze’s resolve as a business owner in “All Roads Lead to the Birchmere.”
“He could be a bit of a tough cookie at times, as one would have to be to turn a rather dumpy little venue into a music mecca. It takes more than grit and perseverance to get the job done,” Demsey said.
Oelze’s marriages to Imogene Williams, Linda Lee Smith and Georgia Mechlin ended in divorce, according to The Washington Post. Survivors include his wife of 10 years, Susan, along with three children from his first marriage: Carrie Oelze of Boca Raton, Florida; Cheryl Oelze of Centreville, Virginia; and Vick Oelze of Sanford, North Carolina; a stepdaughter, Kelly Pilchard of New York City; three brothers; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Chapin Carpenter said Alexandria’s music scene will forever miss Oelze.
“The Birchmere will still bring world class music to the Washington, D.C. area, but it won’t be the same without Gary,” Chapin Carpenter wrote on Facebook. “Thank you old friend for your kindness, friendship and generosity – stars in your crown and a peaceful journey …”