Mark Tomeo's Impressive Career
Apr 26, 2017 10:34AM
By Erica Shames
Mark Tomeo is a Grammy Award nominated guitarist from central Pennsylvania, who performs with rock and country bands as well as working solo jazz gigs.
Originally from Boston, MA, Tomeo began innocently playing along with
Kingston Trio records at around age 10. 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 middle-school
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 but 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, a college-aged Bonnie Raitt among them. He spent some years in college indifferent to the coursework but playing music non-stop.
In the early 70s, he 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. He also added the pedal steel guitar to his arsenal and from Springfield it was an easy hop to Nashville where he took 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 player. It was 1980 and synth-pop bands with stupid names and silly haircuts were all the rage. But one band 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 video presence on MTV
followed. For a year and some they toured with hitmakers including the Stray
Cats, Thompson Twins, Berlin and Psychedelic Furs.
Their 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 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.”
Since then, Tomeo has 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 began taking jazz guitar lessons in 2005 out of both a desire to achieve a new level in his playing as well as to have a style befitting a mature person. “I want to perform right up until they have to pry my cold, dead fingers from the neck of my guitar, but I don’t want to be the geezer rocker who embarrasses his kids,” Tomeo says. “So I’ve worked out a routine where I can play by myself but still sound musically robust, not have to haul a lot of heavy gear, and still satisfy a roomful of my contemporaries.