Mark Tomeo - Pedal Steel/Backing Vocals
Mark Tomeo is a Grammy Award-nominated musician presently living in Phoenix, AZ, who performs with country bands and like-minded guitarists as well as working solo dobro gigs.
Originally from Boston, MA, Tomeo began innocently playing guitar along with Kingston Trio records as a 10 year old. A few years later he watched The Beatles first U.S. appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and joined the revolution. “It felt like the scene in the ‘The Wizard of Oz’ where the house falls in Munchkin Land in black and white, then Dorothy opens the door into a world of technicolor,” Tomeo says. “One minute it was still the crew-cut ‘50s; the next, everyone had flowers in their hair.”
An electric guitar was shortly procured and Tomeo never looked back. He found himself playing in pickup bands in friends’ garages and basements. The turning point came a little later when he and a couple of junior high friends found themselves playing a classmate’s birthday party. After ripping through the hits of the day and all the Fresca they could drink, the birthday girl’s mom gave them each $7. “I can still see the five and two singles she put in my hand,” he said. “And the only thought in my head was ‘you get paid for doing this?’”
Once the careerist aspects became clear, all bets were off. Wide wale corduroys and bright shirts appeared in his closet. Visits to the barber ceased. Grades plummeted. He learned songs by wearing out records. He was the kid at all the high school dances who never danced because he was always in the band. He learned to fingerpick from the legions of Boston-area folksingers who trooped through a local coffeehouse, particularly Bill Staines, Chris Smither, and a college-aged Bonnie Raitt among them. He spent some years in college indifferent to the coursework but playing music non-stop.
In the mid 1970s, he acquire a dobro and a pedal steel, joined a hotel lounge band, spent a couple years with no fixed address, played hundreds of gigs and honed his technique before stopping in Springfield, IL, where he helped a friend open a music store, taught guitar lessons, did setups and repairs, and played country music in Midwestern honkytonks. From Springfield it was an easy hop to Nashville where he took steel guitar lessons, played demo sessions and saw up close how the really good country players worked their magic.
After a few years of that, Tomeo returned to Boston with the unlikely goal of finding a modern rock or pop band that would take him on as a steel/dobro player. The year was 1980 and synth-pop bands with stupid names and silly haircuts were all the rage. But one band there was playing an odd mix of new wave and country using synths and electronic drums as well as mandolin and fiddle. They were also writing original songs in hopes of landing a serious record deal. And they were looking for a pedal steel player who could rock.
It was written. Tomeo became the missing link member of Rubber Rodeo, amping up their live shows and indie-released records, garnering lots of press, barnstorming across the country playing a weird blend of modern and traditional music that critics labeled “country-punk,” “cow pop,” or “home on the radar range.”
In 1983, the band inked a major-label record deal with Mercury/PolyGram and a debut album, north American and UK tours, and a strong video presence on the nascent MTV followed. For a year and some they toured with hitmakers including the Stray Cats, Thompson Twins, Berlin and Psychedelic Furs. He also played on releases by the dBs and Gun Club.
Rubber Rodeo's album and single releases went into the Billboard charts but managerial upheavals at PolyGram and changing musical tastes stalled the band’s career. The album was released the same month as Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which sucked nearly all the oxygen out of the national music room causing Rubber Rodeo to be overlooked at the moment it most needed attention. The band received a Grammy nomination for best video in 1985 but lost to David Bowie (for “Let’s Dance”) and fell apart later that year.
Tomeo had married a Pennsylvania girl and with their young son, moved to Danville, PA, and attempted to join the human race. He packed his guitars in a closet, worked odd jobs and did newspaper writing until a new acquaintance persuaded him to come out of retirement. “I originally stared playing because I loved the sound and feel of a guitar,” he said. “That got lost in the careerism so I took a Zen approach, deciding that if I were going to play, I’d do it for the sake of playing and not worry if there were 10 people or 10,000 listening or if there was $10 or $10,000 at the end of the night.”
In Pennsylvania, Tomeo played and recorded with Davy Jones, the Monkee who settled onto a horse farm in Beavertown; The Badlees, Pennsylvania’s great alternative hope; Darcie Miner, Harrisburg’s answer to Avril Lavigne (who really coulda been a contender); and numerous others.
He has since relocated to Phoenix, where he plays pedal steel in Last Train to Juarez and has developed a technique of singing and playing dobro accompaniment, a style unique in the folk/country/Americana genre.