New book ‘All Roads Lead to The Birchmere’ chronicles history of America’s listening club

Stephen Moore and Gary Oelze hold their new book “All Roads Lead to The Birchmere.” (Courtesy Birchmere)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the new Birchmere book (Part 1)

It’s one of the most historic music venues not only in the D.C. area but in all of America.

Now, the history, experience and legacy of The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia is chronicled in the brand new 502-page book “All Roads Lead to The Birchmere.”

“We started working on it right before the pandemic,” co-author Stephen Moore told WTOP. “When Gary had to close the place down, we worked on it all day together. The acts had more time to talk with us, so it really was kind of a hidden blessing in a way.”

Moore lovingly co-writes the book with Birchmere founder and operator Gary Oelze.

“He said, ‘Let’s do a Birchmere book,'” Oelze said. “I said, ‘I always wanted to do a picture book, I’ve got 1,000 unpublished pictures,’ and he said, ‘No, let’s do the history.’ So we combined it. Our book’s got 350 pictures and 150 great interviews did with different acts.”

You’ll hear classic stories and living histories from the artists who have played there.

“Ray Charles played his last date here,” Oelze said. “Little Richard got off the road after he played here. … In country, we’ve done Johnny Cash or Buck Owens; Joe Sample and Lalah Hathaway in R&B. … There will never be another Danny Gatton, Mike Auldridge or Tony Rice. If they don’t know who these people are … it’s a great gift to discover them.”

Others include Buddy Guy, Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, Arlo Guthrie, John Waters, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, Daryl Davis, Rodney Crowell, Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan and The Neville Brothers.

“Mainly we started out doing bluegrass,” Oelze said. “There was a dozen clubs around town doing bluegrass, but they’d leave a TV on in the bar and have a pool table going. I would drop in and you couldn’t hear the music. … I said, ‘Bluegrass has got an audience,’ so I started enforcing a ‘quiet please’ [policy] and we put them all out of business.”

Over the years, The Birchmere has changed locations, starting as 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. “All the acts that talked to us, they all told us it’s their favorite listening club in the world. I’m not kidding. … Gary was the original sound person. He always wanted The Birchmere to have great sound. He kept up with the technology. … There’s not a bad seat in the audience. The acts can actually see faces.”

Beyond the stage, the artists also enjoy the behind-the-scenes accommodations.

“People were coming in on the bus and had no washers or dryers,” Moore said. “Janis Ian told us [that] it was the first place she ever played that had a washer and dryer.”

“I put showers in also,” Oelze said. “These guys live on a bus and don’t have the comforts of a washer, dryer or shower. They’re so close to the audience [so smell matters].”

Arguably the biggest fan of The Birchmere is 22-time Grammy winner Vince Gill.

“When you’re a gypsy like me, you look forward to being around people who are like-minded,” Gill wrote. “The Birchmere has the feel of a family. I smile when I see this booking appear on my tour calendar. I love their open mind and willingness to present all genres of great music.”

You’ll also find a heartfelt afterword by former “Face the Nation” moderator Bob Schieffer.

“I’m so glad this book was done to summarize The Birchmere’s remarkable run and to honor the performers who ‘arrived’ by playing the legendary hall,” Schieffer wrote. “Again, I never did, and I regret it. If not on stage, my thanks for including me in the story.”

Schieffer isn’t the only Washington political figure to come through doors of The Birchmere, as the venue has hosted Supreme Court justices and U.S. presidents.

“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.”

He’ll never forget having a conversation with President Clinton.

“Clinton met me at the backdoor and said, ‘How long have you been open?’ I said, ‘Three months [at the second location].’ He said, ‘Let’s go inaugurate this place.’ It was a great night,” Oelze said. “Justice [Antonin] Scalia used to come every time Ricky Skaggs played. … It’s really sad not to see him here. … The Secret Service guys know us all now.”

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg of the book’s treasures.

“We’ve gotten some of the greatest reviews you’ve ever read,” Oelze said. “It’s very overwhelming to me. … It’s a lot of history. It’s a lot of fun to read. You’ll hear stars say things that have never been said in public or been published before.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the new Birchmere book (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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