Joe Goldmark – Pedaling far afield
Pedal steel guitarist Joe Goldmark makes his instrumental recordings the same way the pop singers of yesteryear did: by looking for catchy songs. On his new HMG/HighTone album All Hat — No Cattle, the San Francisco record store mogul mines everything from hard rock to West African highlife in his quest for melodic pedal steel covers and originals.
Goldmark has made records that bring pedal steel into the realm of rock, world music and well-worn standards since the early ’80s. From his office at the Haight Street location of Amoeba Music, the renowned indie CD megamart he part-owns, Goldmark discussed his passion for bringing pedal steel to the forefront.
A San Francisco resident for 30 years, he became fascinated by pedal steel in the late ’60s when country-rock performers such as Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Ricky Nelson came on the scene. “I loved the sound,” he says. “It’s a really pleasing tone. It has a lot of pathos. I started with a little steel guitar I got in a pawn shop, an eight-string Fender 400. I took lessons for a year from an old guy.” Later he moved on to modern pedal steel.
Invented in Hawaii in the late 1800s, steel guitar is a major component of West African highlife and Hawaiian music, though American listeners generally associate the instrument with country music. “As soon as you put in a steel guitar, it becomes countryish,” Goldmark concurs.
Goldmark, 48, has released four CDs and three vinyl albums. His 1997 release Steelin’ The Beatles treads the time-honored path of instrumental Beatles covers, while 1996’s The Goldmark Round-Up, selecting from his earlier vinyl output, includes several originals. He also has been a member of Jim Campilongo & the Ten Gallon Cats, a San Francisco band known for its inventive, jazzy take on country music, for the past four years.
After releasing his vinyl albums, Goldmark went on hiatus for a while. When no one else filled the niche he had created, however, he decided to record again. “I come from more of a rock and soul background; I used to play bass in soul and rock bands,” he explains. “I’ve always had an open mind and ear. When I became proficient on steel, I wanted to play different kinds of music on it.”
After All Hat — No Cattle was released, Goldmark received a call from Demola Adepoju, King Sunny Ade’s steel player. Adepoju was calling to compliment Goldmark on “Highlife”, an original in the highlife style that leads off the record. “I figured I’d done something right,” Goldmark says.
His instrumental covers on the new disc of songs such as “China Cat Sunflower” by the Dead, the Mexican standard “Sabor A Mi” and the King/Goffin ballad “Hey Girl” are mellow, melodic and pleasing. There’s even a pedal steel version of pop band Fastball’s 1998 smash hit “The Way”. Goldmark maintains a master list of especially melodic songs, which he refers to when it comes time to choose the dozen or so tunes he ends up covering for each album.
Goldmark considers instrumentals, which were more popular in the ’50s and ’60s than they are now, to be a musician’s song format: “We like to hear good playing without waiting for a lick or a little solo.” He’s never seen a point to recording with words, and besides, he cracks, “you wouldn’t want to hear me sing.”