Steel Away

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

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.

Robert Foothorap

Details

Thursday, Sept. 20

9 p.m.

Tickets are $15

522-0333

www.hightone.com

Slim's, 333 11th St. (at Folsom), S.F.

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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."

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