Jon Epstein explores music and community
Jon Epstein has a certain split-personality element that runs through parts of his life. But music links is the link. Epstein is a bassist, comfortable laying down the musical foundation at the back of the stage, but he’s also a sometimes bandleader, happy to round up like-minded players and assemble a project. He’s an academic, at home in libraries and classrooms, but also a rocker, in his element in loud bars. At 58, he’s not entirely sure — generationally speaking — where he fits in. He said he’s not really a Baby Boomer, and he’s not a Gen Xer either. As he puts it: “I’m one of those guys that believe we can make the world a better place, but I also believe we won’t.” So, he’s not exactly an optimist, but he’s not a full-on pessimist either. You get the idea.
I spoke to Epstein last week by phone from his home in Winston-Salem. In fittingly dualistic mode, Epstein is playing in both bands that will be appearing on a bill at the Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro this week. One of the bands, Uncle Watson’s Widow, is a new project that Epstein helped pull together. The other is BerkStar, fronted by guitarist Tony Berkley. Both play a mix of blues, rock, pop, and soul with a focus on bringing people together.
Epstein’s connection to music in the area, and around the country, goes way back, and in typical fashion, he’s looked at it from many sides. He came of age playing in the Cleveland, Ohio, music scene. He also worked as a music journalist and magazine editor (who occasionally writes for YES! Weekly). Rounding out his perspective, Epstein was a student at UNCG in the 1980s when then-sociology professor Rebecca Adams was taking students to follow the Grateful Dead as a way of studying the peculiar fan culture of Deadheads, devoted fans who would travel around the country creating their own micro-community and micro-economy at concert parking lots. Epstein, who is very much not a Deadhead or even a fan of the Dead’s music, went along for the academic experience of studying fan communities and the ways that music brings people together across regional and economic divides.
The experience had ripples in Epstein’s professional academic work. Epstein, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, has written a lot about music, rock ‘n’ roll in particular, and the ways that musical youth cultures provide a means of shaping identity and bonding for young people in a world where connections and a sense of belonging are hard to find.
Epstein may have always approached music from a sociological vantage point, but it’s probably more accurate to say that he’s applied himself to academia from a rocker’s perspective.
“I really don’t see that big of a distinction between the two things,” Epstein said. “My music and my academic life have always intersected. As a sociologist, I see rock music as, in a very basic sense, a part of a community. And it’s also a mode of communication, and it’s a way for people to identify with broader issues.”
Epstein participated in the Healing Blues Project, a collaborative effort a few years ago that brought local musicians together with those suffering from homelessness in the Greensboro area, to work on songs that drew on their experiences. The project resulted in recordings, videos, and performances to raise money to counter homelessness.
Another of Epstein’s music-and-community projects is a book on the subject of the British symphonic-prog band Marillion and their diehard fans. Epstein said that Marillion were one of the first acts to use Internet-based crowdfunding as a means of generating funds for tours or recordings in a time when record company largesse was mostly vanishing. The practice has since become so common as to no longer be noteworthy.
The formation of Epstein’s latest project, Uncle Watson’s Widow, is itself an extension of that same paradigm of building community while creating new musical collaborations. The band took shape out of the Friday Night Music Club, a monthly Winston-Salem based event started by Doug Davis that throws different area musicians together with different game-like assignments, spurring new, fruitful, and unexpected configurations.
“It’s this extraordinary thing,” said Epstein about the creativity, talent and sense of comradery that the club fosters.
Uncle Watson’s Widow, which features lead vocalist Bekka Moss, guitarists Jim Moody and Chris Joyner, drummer Scott Williams and keyboardist Steve Mowery, is the offshoot of a band that came together at the club. The band tackles old, underappreciated B-sides and less-well-known songs by artists that people might be familiar with. For instance, they’ll be playing an early REO Speedwagon tune that reflects on the theme of living up to the American ideals of liberty, freedom, opportunity and equality.
Epstein knows that music, humble and every day in some ways, is also a powerful force and that it’s broken down all kinds of barriers around the world. Still, he doesn’t set unattainable goals for music-making.
“It’s all about community,” Epstein said. “The band’s job is to make people feel like they’re a part of something with other people. If that was the only meaning that rock ‘n’ roll had, that would be enough. But there’s more because music changes the world. Rock ‘n’ roll changed the world.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Uncle Watson’s Widow and Tony Berkley’s BerkStar at the Crown at the Carolina Theatre, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro, on Friday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m. carolinatheatre.com.