Owner of Alexandria’s Birchmere Gary Oelze dies at 80

Listen to Gary Oelze talk about The Birchmere's success with WTOP.

The owner of the Alexandria, Virginia, music venue The Birchmere has died. Gary Oelze was 80.

First reported by The Zebra, Oelze was the “hands-on” operator of Alexandria’s “most famous music venue,” which first opened as a restaurant in 1966 in the Shirlington neighborhood. It was named after a boys camp, and to boost nighttime business, Oelze, who was the manager at the time, decided to “add a music vibe,” The Zebra reported.

In 2022, Oelze and Stephen Moore published a book called “All Roads Lead to The Birchmere,” which chronicled the experience and legacy of the venue.

“We started working on it right before the pandemic,” Moore told WTOP entertainment reporter Jason Fraley in January 2022. “When Gary had to close the place down, we worked on it all day together.”

From left, Gary Oelze and Stephen Moore hold their new book “All Roads Lead to The Birchmere.” (Courtesy Birchmere)

Oelze said that he always wanted to use the thousands of pictures he had of performers and acts, and the book combined the photos of and interviews with the performers who have entertained the audiences throughout the decades.

Tributes for Oelze poured out as news of his death spread.

Singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter said in a Facebook post that if she had never met Oelze, “I wholeheartedly believe that I wouldn’t have a career in music.”

Carpenter said Oelze believed in her and offered her opening sets for nationally known artists. He also helped her afford a 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,” Carpenter said.

The band Eddie from Ohio described Oelze as “a giant” in the music world.

Musical duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer said Oelze was an “honest business man and a true music lover.”

Over the years, The Birchmere changed locations, from a 200-seat venue in Shirlington in 1966, then moving to a 350-seat space in Alexandria in 1981, then sliding up a few blocks on Mount Vernon Avenue to the current 500-seat space in 1997.

“It became the listening club,” Moore said, with Oelze as the original sound person.

“He always wanted The Birchmere to have great sound,” Moore said. “He kept up with the technology. … There’s not a bad seat in the audience. The acts can actually see faces.”

Oelze also put in showers at the venue for the performers and the crew who live on a bus and may not have the comforts of a washer, dryer or shower.

“They’re so close to the audience [so smell matters],” Oelze told WTOP last year.

Arguably the biggest fan of The Birchmere is 22-time Grammy winner Vince Gill, who said that he loved the venue’s “willingness to present all genres of great music.”

Oelze, who was from Kentucky, started to focus on the music side of the venue starting in 1974, specifically hiring bluegrass acts, according to Boundary Stones, WETA’s local history website.

Oelze told Boundary Stones that he figured the dozens of bluegrass bands in the area “deserved a venue that would take them seriously.” Soon after, The Birchmere cemented its reputation as a “hub for bluegrass with not only a local following, but a national reputation,” Boundary Stones said.

With its proximity to D.C., The Birchmere also attracted political figures, including “Face the Nation” moderator Bob Schieffer, several Supreme Court justices and even a president.

“Bill Clinton came here twice,” Oelze said. “Al Gore used to live up the street and was here all the time. One night he was leaving the White House. Clinton said, ‘Where you going?’ He said, ‘I’m going to The Birchmere to hear Jerry Jeff Walker.’ He said, ‘Hillary and I will go with you.’ The four of them showed up, then they came back to see Kim Richey.”

WTOP’s Jason Fraley contributed to this report.

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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