Anyone familiar with Merced’s downtown arts community understands there are few people as involved in the West Main Street scene as Joey “No Knows” Essig.
Known around town as co-owner of the popular downtown bar-music venue The Partisan, and operations director of the Merced Arts Council, over the years the 35-year-old Mercedian has also made a name for himself as a local singer-songwriter and musician.
Essig’s years of dedication to his craft paid off Thursday night, as he and fellow musicians Willy Tea Taylor and Chris Doud, both of Oakdale, were awarded the Best Singer/Songwriter Award by the Modesto Area Music Awards. Essig, Taylor and Doud were given the award for a children’s album they created, called “Color This Album.” The trio were presented with the award during an evening ceremony at the State Theatre in downtown Modesto.
Essig said receiving the award is definitely “surreal,” particularly because he’s been nominated before, but never won. “To actually win one was — weird,” he said.
He was previously nominated for a MAMA as a member of Merced band El Olio Wolof. The other nomination came when The Partisan was in the running for a “Best Venue” award.
Color This Album includes all-original acoustic music by Essig, Doud, and Taylor, with instruments ranging from guitars, banjos, mandolins, and even a “hoot jug here and there,” according to the album’s description on website heckabad.com.
Essig plays guitar on the album, in addition to singing lead vocals on some songs. The album began as a concept thought of by Doud, a member of the “Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit” with Taylor. Essig said he and Doud are also in a songwriting club together called the “52 Week Club.”
“We had been in this songwriting club together, so he knew that I had some kids songs, and invited me to come and be on the album,” Essig said.
Essig, who’s been writing songs for about 15 years, said he’s driven as a songwriter by the challenge. The biggest challenge, he said is “actually finishing anything,” as there are probably a hundred songs that he’s started but hasn’t completed yet. “I don’t play live that often. But I write songs all the time,” he said. “It’s fun for me to try and work it out, like a math problem or something like that.”
He also works tirelessly as an advocate for downtown Merced. In addition to his work at the Merced Arts Council and The Partisan, Essig plays an active role co-organizing the MiddleState Independent Comedy Film Festival, which is held annually in downtown Merced.
His enthusiasm and passion for Merced is obvious in his voice, as he describes the city and Central Valley as “a very unique place.”
“It’s the kind of place where very small actions can have very large consequences. Could I have a bar in San Francisco? A million dollars later, maybe, possibly. But could I have a bar here? Yes. It’s affordable. It’s something that can happen. These kinds of art experiences and experiences are something you are more able to accomplish here. Because the market’s smaller. Because things are affordable. Because there’s not a lot of it already out there, people are more receptive to it,” he said.
“It’s a really special (place) for the arts. Because it’s not barren — but it lacks its own aesthetic right now. There’s no Central Valley aesthetic as it stands right now. And so it’s up for grabs. And that’s an interesting proposition.”
Tom Price, founder of DLM Magazine, which focuses on the downtown Merced’s arts and music scene, has profiled Essig and his music on more than one occasion. Price said he first met Essig years ago, as a fan of El Olio Wolof. “He’s a wonderful storyteller, and each one of his songs has a magic and cleverness that makes him fun to listen to,” Price said.
Thursday’s awards ceremony honored the year’s most popular music and entertainment as voted online by fans. Trophies were handed out in 20 categories – from rock to pop, metal to acoustic and more. This year, more than 4,700 votes were cast for the some 200 nominees. Votes came from as far as London, Miami, Vancouver and Hollywood.