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Steel Away 

Thanks to Joe Goldmark, the pedal steel guitar isn't just for country anymore

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
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The pedal steel guitar is an ungainly, baffling instrument -- a complicated gadget with two necks, strings that bend like saltwater taffy, and a confounding number of distortion pedals and knee levers. The table-shaped contraption, which is played with a metal bar while sitting down, has been driving musicians mad ever since hillbilly jazzmen adapted it from the Hawaiian slack-key guitar back in the '30s.

Like his chosen instrument, Joe Goldmark is an atypical performer. A fixture on the Bay Area country scene since the late '70s, Goldmark has brought the pedal steel great renown, while challenging fans to look outside of the instrument's normal country confines.

Goldmark first attracted notice with steel guitar enthusiasts, releasing three solo records that altered the way his small audience viewed his mutant guitar. For the general populace, Goldmark remained less known -- although he added steel licks to albums by roots artists such as Taj Mahal, Mike Bloomfield, and Maria Muldaur and rockers like the Mermen, David Byrne, and the Mr. T Experience. Throughout the peaks and valleys of his lengthy career, Goldmark has continued to show a versatility that leaves players and fans shaking their heads in disbelief. His new album, Strong Like Bull ... But Sensitive Like Squirrel!, may be his most fluid release yet, a collection of winsome tunes that underscores the hidden connections between country and Memphis soul.

Goldmark's introduction to country music came through the back door. Growing up in Arizona he was exposed to only Top 40 pop and drippy Nashville country. After his folks moved to the Bay Area in the late '60s, the teenager found himself plopped in the middle of the booming country rock scene. Through roots- oriented longhair bands like the Grateful Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Goldmark found himself drawn to country material -- especially after catching Sneaky Pete Kleinow play with the Flying Burrito Brothers.

"Sneaky Pete was a real visionary and trendsetter," Goldmark recalls from his San Francisco office. "He was unique. Even to this day nobody uses his tunings or his effects like he did. He also wasn't stuck in country and didn't care what style of music he was playing."

Smitten with the steel guitar, Goldmark worked his way back through the instrument's history, haunting used record stores for hard-core honky-tonk artists of the '50s like Carl Smith, Ray Price, and Webb Pierce. Soon, he learned to appreciate legendary pop and Nashville pedal steel players such as Bud Isaacs, Jimmy Day, and Buddy Emmons.

Over time Goldmark began performing live, initially with straight country cover bands and then with alternative acts such as the Texas Chainsaw Band and Billy C. Farlow. He worked full time on the flourishing hippie-billy circuit, a scene supported by venues such as Bernie's, the Sweetwater, and the Townhouse and free-form radio stations like KSAN and KFAT. After mastering his instrument Goldmark self-released three albums between 1979 and 1981 that broke through the countrified confines of pedal steel playing. He also toured with Peter Rowan's group, the Free Mexican Air Force, and reveled in Northern California's retro-country boom.

Gradually, though, the gigs tapered off, as the audience for old-style country dwindled and the hippies migrated north or acquired Beemers and beepers. Music became more of a pastime for Goldmark, as his energies turned toward day jobs and a newfound domestic life with his wife, Kathi Kamen Goldmark. Still, throughout the '80s, Goldmark kept up his chops by playing in groups like Osage, Mental Revenge, and the Ray Price Club, as well as by picking up occasional studio work.

In 1994 Goldmark took stock of the new altcountry scene and realized that no one else had filled the niche he'd created decades before. He returned to the studio to cut one of his most brilliant solo albums, the ambitious and aptly titled All Over the Road, a collection of covers of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Nelson Riddle, and several obscure R&B artists from the early '60s. Heartened by the response to the record, Goldmark reissued material from his older albums and renewed his determination to expand the stylistic horizons of his favorite musical instrument. Oakland's HighTone Records offered to help, despite the slim possibility that its owners would ever make a dime putting out pedal steel country-soul instrumental albums.

"HighTone is all over the place; they just put out music that they like," Goldmark explains. "[Label co-owner] Larry [Sloven] heard my Steelin' the Beatles album and loved it. He called me up and said, "Hey, what are you up to? Want to put out another album?'"

Goldmark's first HighTone release, 1999's All Hat -- No Cattle, included steelified versions of African, Caribbean, and Mexican music, along with covers of the Byrds and the Grateful Dead. The record was typical of Goldmark's wide-ranging style.

"My niche is that I put the steel into a different vein," he says. "I try to use all the stuff that makes the steel beautiful and special or schmaltzy or whatever. ... I put that into an R&B context, into concise, hooky, moving songs. I make these albums to please myself -- I get into a good groove and then lay in this beautiful steel guitar on top of it."

Since 1995 Goldmark has also been a mainstay of Jim Campilongo's Ten Gallon Cats, an eclectic local ensemble devoted to stretching the boundaries of instrumental music. During that time, Goldmark has seen the decline of the instrument he loves, especially in Nashville, where Top 40 country's assembly line has been slowly pruning the steel out of its albums since the late '50s. Although the instrument defined the Nashville sound in the postwar era, producers began looking for ways to appeal to a wider audience. One method was to tone down identifiably "hick" instruments such as the fiddle and pedal steel.

"Country music has a real love-hate relationship with the steel guitar," Goldmark says. "Bandleaders love to have a steel guitar because it adds so much to the music. But when they get to the studio, their producers are always trying to eliminate it because it sounds too corny or too twangy. There are always revivals -- some artist is strong enough to say, "Hey, I've gotta have this,' and then people love it. It'll make a comeback for a while, and the studios [will] try to weed it out again."

If it seems like Goldmark brings an encyclopedic knowledge to his work, it may be because he actually did "write the book" on pedal steel music. Goldmark's self-published International Steel Guitar Discography purports to document every steel guitar instrumental ever recorded. Now in its eighth edition, the Discography has become the bible for steel guitar fanatics. Goldmark has considered computerizing the list or posting it online, but these days he finds he has less time to sink into this quixotic project. Why? Because he's too busy stocking records.


Throughout the early '90s Goldmark was co-owner of the Upper Haight's Escape From New York Pizza shop. As a local merchant with pro-music sympathies, Goldmark was drafted by Amoeba Music to help unruffle the feathers of NIMBY activists who worried about the new branch's possible impact on the neighborhood. Goldmark helped set up meetings with merchants and community groups like the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, attempting to downplay concerns over traffic congestion and parking hassles. One thing led to another, and Goldmark found himself a manager and co-owner of Amoeba S.F. -- with music as his full-time gig once again.

"[Amoeba's] made me aware of a lot of ambient and electronica and hip hop [and] metal and punk -- stuff that I was never exposed to before," Goldmark says. "As you get older, you really lose touch with all that unless you work with kids -- being in a music store now, I'm really aware of new music."

One of the biggest surprises for Goldmark was finding out that the pedal steel had made its way into the electronica scene. Co-workers introduced him to albums like BJ Cole and Luke Vibert's Stop the Panic, which blended steel guitars with lush, ambient mixes. Even with his wide-ranging sensibilities Goldmark isn't sure he'll tackle the techno scene anytime soon.

"It's not a style that moves me, which is why I don't do it," he says. "I might do something on the fringe of it, but I wouldn't put out a whole album of it."

Instead, Goldmark has immersed himself in the music of his childhood -- old soul, the Mussel Shoals-style R&B that once shared AM radio space with surf and acid rock. While many may be puzzled by the connection between country and blues, Goldmark sees himself in the crossover tradition of Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Charlie Rich.

"Country and soul music both like to tell a story, to explore the sadder side of life, rather than rock 'n' roll, which is more kid-oriented -- who's got the bitchin'est car or the cutest girl? And be it black or white, they sing with soul and try to tell you about the reality of life." As an instrumentalist, Goldmark selects songs that are expressive and moving. "First of all, I look for a good melody, one that will work well on the steel guitar. I also like to do songs that are a little obscure, like these days I'm really into gospel music. So I recorded "Walk Around Heaven,' which is a beautiful song by Shirley Caesar and the Caravans." Strong Like Bull also includes covers of Otis Redding, Nick Lowe, and other Goldmark faves -- recognizable numbers made exotic by his intricately layered, madly baroque pedal steel.

After three decades in the local music scene, Joe Goldmark has the financial independence and stability to make exactly the kind of records he wants and to pursue music just for fun. But as a grizzled veteran, he knows better than to underestimate the value of a good day job and a sense of perspective.

"Fame and fortune has its costs. Everybody wants to make it big, and yet people don't take into account the incredible sacrifices -- personally and artistically -- that entails," he cautions. "If you have to play five nights a week and take gigs that you don't like, you get so you resent it. And if you have to live poor for your music, it becomes a real tough thing as you get older."

About The Author

Lawrence Kay

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