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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.
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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."