All Roads Lead To The Birchmere—America’s Legendary Music Hall
If it wasn’t for the Birchmere, I probably would not have had a career in bluegrass music. I grew up in Springfield, Virginia and my childhood home was exactly ten miles door-to-door from the second Birchmere, located on Mt. Vernon Avenue in Alexandria. I then went to college at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland—45 minutes from the Birchmere. After college I was stationed in Quantico, Virginia—30 minutes from the Birchmere. During those years I spent countless nights at the Birchmere and it was there that I received my bluegrass education.
I saw nearly every major bluegrass act perform at the Birchmere and saw the Seldom Scene perform on a Thursday night dozens of times. The two most memorable shows to me were when Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Norman Blake performed on the same night and the time Kate Wolf performed with Mike Auldridge and Pete Kennedy backing her up, having never performed with her before. Also, the only time I ever broke a regulation when I was at the Naval Academy was when I snuck out on a weeknight to see Mike Cross play at the Birchmere. Then there was the Birchmere performance that would set the course for a big part of my life. The band was Hot Rize. It was the first time I saw them perform live and I sat directly in front of Charles Sawtelle. That night he became my guitar hero and that later led to me publishing Flatpicking Guitar Magazine for twenty years, which led to me being the editor of Bluegrass Unlimited. Thank you, Birchmere!
Needless to say, when Stephen Moore contacted me and asked if I would be willing to review an advanced copy of the new book that he and club owner Gary Oelze had written about the Birchmere, I was very excited. Since the Birchmere was such a big part of my early bluegrass life, I had high expectations. After reading the book, I was not at all disappointed. It is very well written and brings me back to the exact feeling and vibe of the place. The Birchmere was intimate, relaxed, and comfortable. It was a place to go and forget about your life outside of those four walls and enjoy an intimate show sitting at tables with close friends that you possibly didn’t know before that night. The common bond of the music and performers made you feel like you knew everyone in the room because, like you, they were serious fans who were there to listen.
The feeling of what it was like to attend a show at the Birchmere is primarily told in this book through the stories of the performers who played the venue and those who worked there. The list of performers who contributed their thoughts and feelings about the venue in this book reads like a who’s-who of bluegrass, folk, rock, blues, jazz, pop, country, western, Celtic, and Cajun music—and some of those performers got their start at the Birchmere.
Every musician who performed at the venue has great Birchmere stories and the wonderful thing is that they are stories that you probably haven’t heard or read about in any other context, no matter how well you know these artists. You also realize that the way these artists feel about the Birchmere is the same way you have felt about it—they also enjoyed its intimacy, its high-quality sound, the respect that the audience gave the performers (by keeping quite during the show—a requirement at the Birchmere). You discover that the artists who you lined up to see enjoyed the experience every bit as much as you did.
The feel that everyone on stage and in the audience got at the Birchmere is best summed up in the book by Rosanne Cash. She said, “You never know about audiences. You just never know. It’s always like rolling the dice every night to see what they’re going to be like. But with the Birchmere, it’s always like a homecoming, always welcoming. They’re always enthusiastic. They give you a lot of slack to make mistakes. They’re so present. It’s one of the great venues in the country.”
Through this book you not only get a behind-the-scenes look at the artists, but also the owner and staff. I spent so much time at the Birchmere that I felt like I knew Gary, Linda, Pudge, Billy Wolf and others who worked there. They didn’t know me at all, but they were the Birchmere family and they always treated patrons as such. When I finally met Tom Gray, after interviewing him over the phone, he said, “It is great to meet you face-to-face.” I said, “Tom, this is probably the first time you’ve seen my face, but I feel like I’ve known you for years because I’ve seen your face dozens of times up there on stage at the Birchmere.”
To list all of the performers who are a part of this book would take way too much space in this review, and while the book could not practically feature the thousands of artists who have performed at the venue over the years, there are enough presented here to make any music fan very happy with what is included. I love that the majority of the book is spent telling the story of the Birchmere through the reflections of the artists who played there. The way each section segues into the next makes it a very fluid and enjoyable read. It makes the reader feel as though, no matter what genre of music a performer identifies with, they all share a common bond that is the Birchmere.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I highly recommend this book to anyone who has attended a show at the Birchmere. It will bring you back. But this is also a book that anyone who is a fan of music of any genre can thoroughly enjoy because in the telling of the Birchmere’s story through the words of those who performed there, the authors allow you to learn things about your musical heroes that you probably did not know and will not learn from any other source.