By Denise Dunbar
When my husband and I entered the Birchmere one evening in early 1993 to hear one of our favorite artists, Jerry Jeff Walker, perform his Texas outlaw mix of raucous honkey-tonk and sweet ballads, little did we realize how entertaining that night was to be.
As the hall began filling up, we noticed that a table in a prime location was empty and had a “reserved” sign on top. That was unusual, as there is no reserved seating at the Birchmere. Rumors began swirling that new Vice President Al Gore was going to attend. Jerry Jeff launched into his show, and a couple of numbers in there was a furious rustling throughout the hall. We looked up to see President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with Gore and his wife Tipper Gore, move through the crowd to the waiting empty table.
The rest of the evening we listened to Jerry Jeff, but mostly watched the presidential table, where a steady stream of mostly women from the audience greeted the president, who happily – though quietly because there’s no talking in the Birchmere while shows are ongoing – obliged. We were amused. From her expression, it appeared that Hillary was less so.
On another outing at the Birchmere, we went to see singer/songwriter/guitarist Joan Armatrading, who I had discovered in college when a local record store gave away a 45 rpm record with two of her songs. While we knew her as a neofolk singer with standards like “Water with the Wine,” she had reinvented herself into an outrageous blues guitarist. We were simply astounded by her prowess that night.
In early 1996, I read a review about a new artist named Gillian Welch, who grew up in California but had a haunting, Appalachian-inspired style. In rapid order I bought her CD, “Revival,” and went to see her at the Birchmere. The spare sound of Welch and guitarist David Rawlings left an enduring impression.
In 2009, for my husband’s 50th birthday, I worked with Birchmere staff to throw a surprise party for him featuring the band The Outlaws. (If you’ve never heard “Green Grass and High Tides Forever,” queue it up on Spotify right now.) They were able to keep the cost down for the party by also booking The Outlaws to play the next night, and, yes, my husband wound up on stage singing with the band before the night was over. What a treat!
Before, between and since those four nights, I’ve been to many dozens of shows at the Birchmere.
This treasure was the brainchild of Gary Oelze, who died on Monday at age 80. Oelze began offering regular music at the original Birchmere restaurant in Arlington in the mid-1970s. The Birchmere outgrew that location by 1981, and Oelze moved it to Alexandria, at 3901Mt. Vernon Ave., which is where the President Clinton concert took place. In 1997, Oelze moved the Birchmere two blocks down the street to its current spot at 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the Birchmere as a music venue – not just in Alexandria or the Washington DMV, but nationally.
In my tenure at the Times, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a handful of artists who were coming to Alexandria to perform at the Birchmere. From Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls to Michael Timmons of Cowboy Junkies to Ellie and Drew Holcomb to Suzanne Vega, they’ve all raved about how much they enjoyed performing at the Birchmere and how much they appreciated the support of Gary and longtime staff members like Michael Jaworek and Ben Finkelstein.
Oelze created something special that has endured in Alexandria for almost a half century.
The music that has echoed throughout the Birchmere and the legends – living and dead – who have graced its stages have been a gift to the many thousands of Birchmere devotees. Catching a glimpse of your favorite artist’s personality, hearing a beloved song performed live or feeling the electricity when a virtuoso gives their very best performance – those are priceless treasures for which we have Oelze to thank. RIP.