Artistic Hair, Affordable Art, Santa Ana Winds, and Unfinished Business provide a last — and lasting — look at a unsung musical icon
I must admit that while I was familiar with Steve Goodman’s indelible reputation as a heralded singer and songwriter, I knew very little abut his immense body of songs.
Granted, I had collected his work from his early albums on, but other than his seminal classic “City of New Orleans,” later recorded and turned into a popular hit by Arlo Guthrie — an early admirer recognized his talents early on — I had no idea what an incredible impact he had on those who knew him personally and recorded with him later on.
Nevertheless, when I was given the opportunity to write the liner notes for the albums recently reissued by Omnivore Records — Artistic Hair, Affordable Art, Santa Ana Winds, and Unfinished Business — I was, of course, deeply honored and highly gratified. After all, it’s not every day that a humble scribe like myself gets assigned to such a prestigious project.
Nevertheless, I knew that I was about to undertake an important journey, one that would lead me to those individuals who had a special bond with Goodman during his all too brief lifetime. Then there was the music itself first, encompassed by Artistic Hair and Affordable Art, completed prior to his passing (he died following his battle with leukemia on September 20, 1984), and Santa Ana Winds and the aptly titled Unfinished Business which were completed and compiled later.
Of course it goes without saying that it’s always easier when you can speak with the artist. I previously had the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion with Arlo Guthrie while doing the liner notes that would accompany Omnivore’s expanded reissue of the Alice’s Restaurant soundtrack that came out earlier this year. That experience had been most fulfilling. However in this case, sadly, the man who made this music wasn’t available for gleaning any insights or explanation. That was a tragedy in itself. Fortunately, there were others who were generous enough to share their time and reflections, and it was those people that provided me with a wealth of insights into an artist who now ought to be considered, at least in hindsight, one of the great gifts to the American folk idiom
The path forward for this project began with Goodman’s daughter Rosanna, whose fond memories of her father helped provide the personal perspective needed to understand the individual and his struggle against the inevitable outcome of his terrible disease. She told me about his decision to abandon the music machine, that is, the major label operatives who were unable — or unwilling — to give him the support needed to make the music he wanted to do, free of commercial constraints but well plied with humor and ingenuity. That was the scenario that prompted the Goodman family’s move to California and the establishment of his Red Pajamas Records, an indie operation that served as a model for his friend John Prine’s record label and countless other artist-owned initiatives in the decades since.
It also led me to Peter Bunetta, the younger brother of Al Bunetta, the man who managed Goodman and Prine and helped provide the impetus and support for Goodman’s later work. Bunetta looked up to Goodman, not only as a big brother, but also as a mentor, and he was not only witness to the recordings as a player and percussionist, but also as a confidante and colleague. His recollections of the events as they unfolded proved invaluable.
David Goodman, Steve’s younger brother, shared several touching moments as well, including his reflections on that most memorable photo that graced the cover of Santa Ana Winds. He noted how Steve always had his back and did his best to shield him from the pitfalls of the music biz by steering him towards photography. As David recalled, “He thought it was much safer.”
I had opportunity to speak with the many of the amazing support players who sat in on the sessions — producers Jim Tullio and Rick Chudacoff, pedal steel player Steve Fishell, bassist Chuck Fiore, road manager Maple Byrne, and occasional co-writer and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member Jeff Hanna. They not only offered insights into Goodman’s indomitable attitude, but also how he was determined not to be deterred, relentlessly working at his craft and making the most of the time he had remaining
The albums that resulted — specifically the four mentioned here — spotlight Goodman’s lingering legacy as far as both the man and his music. Fleshed out with a generous number of heretofore unreleased bonus tracks — some three dozen or so spread amongst the four individual discs — these recordings attest to the wit, whimsy, insight and intelligence that Goodman gave with such warmth and generosity. While many of the tracks will be known mostly to his ardent admirers, all are worthy of rediscovery. There are any number of gems in the form of both originals and covers — “City of New Orleans,” “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” “Red, Red Robin,” “Chicken Cordon Blues” (Artistic Hair), “Vegematic,” “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” “Watchin’ Joey Glow,” “Streets of London” (Affordable Art), “Face on the Cutting Room Floor,” “Hot Tub Refugee,” “Santa Ana Winds” (Santa Ana Winds), “Millie Make Some Chili,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “The Dutchman” (Unfinished Business) chief among them.
As to the part I played…well all I can say is, Steve, wherever you are, I hope I made you proud. Thanks for giving us all your inspiration, humility and ability.
VIDEO: Omnivore Recordings’ trailer for Steve Goodman