A New Tradition of American Music: Gypsy Sally’s

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David and Karen Ensor | Tim Riethmiller

There was a time—during the 1970s,
the 1980s and a little beyond—when
Georgetown and its surrounding areas
vibrated with the sound of music coming
from all sorts of venues, up and down M
Street, on Wisconsin Avenue and on K
Street by the waterfront.

Almost all of that is gone, surviving only
as legend. Neil Young recently issued an album
based on his appearance at the Cellar Door, and
there was a movie documentary shown on PBS
about the golden age of the Bayou. Only Blues
Alley, still presenting top-tier jazz in a classy
(and one-of-a-kind setting) remains, just off
Wisconsin Avenue in Blues Alley, NW.

But wait. There’s a new kid on the block,
or rather there are new kids on the block.
That would be David and Karen Ensor, who
remember the Georgetown music scene well and
hope to begin to revive that scene with Gypsy
Sally’s, a new music club which opened last fall
under the Whitehurst Freeway at 3401 K Street,
also known as Water Street that far west in town.

The club—more of a total environment than
just a music venue—specializes in the elastic
genre of Americana music, which goes back
as far as folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete
Seeger (who died yesterday) and runs through
Appalachian-rooted banjo music, the kings and
queens of singer-songwriters (Emmy Lou Harris
and Bob Dylan) come to mind. It’s got its own
Grammy category (Harris and Rodney Crowell
won the best album honors). It’s roots music
steeped in tradition, but it is also as new as
tomorrow, when the next legend, packing a
guitar on his or her back, comes in and sets up
on the main stage at Gypsy Sally’s.
We stopped by Gypsy Sally’s on a quiet,
icicle-cold mid-week afternoon to talk with
Karen and Dave Ensor, the couple who are
fulfilling a long-held dream and hope to jump
start a Georgetown music renaissance.

“We remember that time when if you were
talking about D.C. music, you were talking pretty
much about what was going on in Georgetown,”
Karen said. “But right now, as far as Georgetown
is concerned, what was left was Blues Alley and
that was pretty much it. I think we complement
Blues Alley, right down the street from us, and
maybe we can start something going again.”

“We love Georgetown, we live here, we’re
raising my two teenaged daughters here,” she
said. “Almost ever since we knew each other, we
wanted to open a club. That was what we wanted
to do. We looked all over the city at first, but
then a friend of ours told us about the space here.
He said, ‘You’ve got to check this out,’ and we
did. We thought the space was perfect for what
we had in mind.”

“It’s more than just a rock club or something
like that,” said Dave Ensor, who knows a thing
or two about rock clubs. “We’re trying to give
folks an experience, so that they have options
about how they want to experience things here,
or what they want to experience.”

David, a local from Northern Virginia, spent
some time in Los Angeles, wanting to be an actor
at first, then working with bands, including his
own. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think you really
have to want to be an actor. It’s really hard. I
think music suited me better. I did everything—
singing, playing, the roadie thing, the process,
you know. But I got to know a lot about how the
business operated, what it took, touring, getting
gigs, booking, the mechanics of setting up bands
in venues.” He calls himself a big fan of Bob
Dylan and Cat Stevens.

The Ensors make a circular kind of couple in
the sense that they round each other out, opposite
on the surface with a passionately held dream
that they’re working on together.

She was raised in the South, went to
Vanderbilt, has a law degree from the University
of Maryland, is a registered nurse and
businesswoman. She’s an admitted Dead Head,
i.e., super-fan of the Grateful Dead, but also
of the kind of rock-and-roll—a rite of passage
in the South—personified by the sound of the
Allman Brothers. She’s high-energy. He’s more
reserved and cautious, except when he’s talking
about music. He still has the kind of quiet
charisma of a guy who would be comfortable in
front of a camera or raising the roof on a rockand-
roll stage. He came back from L.A. in
1990 and had an album in 2009, called “Building
a Life,” and he still teaches guitar. He acquired a
nickname—“Silky Dave”—which seems exactly
right in a good way.

Gypsy Sally’s—the name apparently comes
from an old Townes Van Zandt song called
“Tecumseh Valley”—displays an eclectic
personality.

When you get the tour—minus the music,
but with lots of atmospherics—you get the
seating arrangement, a tiered experience for a
capacity of 300 with both seating and standing
(and if you’re inclined) dancing room.

“We love it that you can do that if you
want,” Karen said. You also have a dining
option, with a menu that’s ripped from the
pages of some of today’s healthier and funkier
cookbooks: hello hempseed fudge brownies, as
well as hempseed hummus, Lake Caesar Salad
and voodoo potato chips. “We wanted above all
for people who come here to find their comfort
zone, to be comfortable,” she said. “We know
we have great venues in the area—the Birchmere
or the 9:30 Club. But in one place you can’t
stand, in the other you can’t sit. Here, you can
do both. That’s for starters.”

“This isn’t just about nostalgia,” Karen
continued. “It’s about contemporary music, a
particular kind of music. It’s the Americana
genre, roots music, singer-songwriters, with
bands and groups that tour and record nationally,
but also new musicians, local musicians, we
hope it will be a place for that kind of thing, too.
We’re not hip hop or Euro-pop or anything like
that, there’s plenty of other places in town that
do that.”

You can get a sense of the music just
by the sound of the band names who are
either coming there soon or have already played
there—the incomparable Kelly Willis, for
instance, or “Covered With Jam” with Ron
Holloway, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, the
Walkaways, Yarn, Steel Wheels, the Railers,
Rico America and the Midnight Train. It’s a
flavor, tinged with banjo and guitars, railroad
cars and diners and songs written by young men
and women waking up feverish with a line that
sticks in their minds, a beat and a rhythm you just
have to fashion a song out of. Upcomers include
a Johnny birthday celebration on Feb. 26, John
Hammond on Feb. 19 and the Flashband Project.

Physically, Gypsy Sally’s comes at you
in sections. It’s on the second floor of a
building that fronts K Street with the restaurant
Malmaison.

When you walk in you’re in the Microbus
Gallery, which features an old “hippie bus,”
designed to give you a feeling for the rustic days
of touring cross-country or hanging out with Ken
Kesey and his merry pranksters.

Exhibitions are a regular thing here, too.
The William Adair construction, “The Golden
Doors to Infinity,” which honors the late and
legendary musician Gram Parsons, and “Martyrs
of Rock,” portraits of lost rock musicians—Jerry
Garcia, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious
and others—by Walter Egan will be seen here,
beginning Feb. 4.

There’s also the Vinyl Lounge, with its own
entrance, a shiny bar, and a small stage—for
open-mike nights—and a collection of vinyl
records, singles and albums, which are making
something of a comeback these days. On the
stand, you can see a collection of old albums,
including the blue hues of a Dylan greatest hits
album. You can bring your own—records, that
is—and play them.

“We care about each and every artist—
roadie or lead singer, or drummer or bass man
who comes in here,” Karen said. “That’s what
we’re about on the whole. It’s the music and
musicians and the audience.”

To meet that goal, Karen and Dave split the
stuff that keeps Gypsy Sally’s going.

“Dave knows everything about the music
business and being a musician—the setting up,
the mechanics, the burnt out fuse, the decibel
level, all the music and creative stuff,” she
said. “Everything on paper, that’s me—the
books, the money, the dates, the business end.”

Together, they’ve got Gypsy Sally’s
humming to a point where people might hear an
echo all over the city up on Wisconsin Avenue
and M Street, the way it used to be.

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