Daughter of the Old West

Seasoned folksinger Mary McCaslin may not be a native, but she sure sings like one

Mary McCaslin, obiviously without her friend, Flicka.

Mary McCaslin, obiviously without her friend, Flicka.

7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 27, at the Fifth String Music Store, 930 Alhambra Blvd. (at J St.), Suite 110, $12.

Live! Longing for wide-open spaces is such a clear theme in the American songbag that it must be hard-wired into our DNA. Folk, blues, country and pop tunes have kept campfires stoked and blazing far longer than black coffee might have allowed.

Folksinger Mary McCaslin, a Hoosier by birth but Californian by years (she currently lives in Santa Cruz), is a chronicler of the Golden West’s myth as much as its reality. “When we moved to California from Indianapolis in the 1950s,” she says, “I was 6. I thought, as a child might, that it would be cowboys, ranches and horses, but what we moved into was—the suburbs! It was Redondo Beach, nice, but it was housing tracts.” Armed then with classic songs like Vaughn Monroe’s scary and majestic “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Cowpoke,” the little Mary set about living in her fantasy world of outlaws, Ole Paint and the prairie. It grew into a career.

As a teen, McCaslin traversed the 1960s’ Los Angeles folk-rock scene, playing a unique style of open-tuned guitar and pre-bluegrass clawhammer banjo. With a pure crystalline voice that Nancy Griffiths, Iris Dement and Gillian Welch have to tip their boots to, McCaslin rode the fence between folk and country music brilliantly. She made early records for Capitol, and then in the 1970s, hit her stride with a series of albums for Vermont-based folk label Philo Records. Her songs have been recorded by Tom Russell (“Prairie in the Sky”), David Bromberg (“Young Westley”) and Kate Wolf (“Ballad of Weaverville”).

In 1972, at the legendary Sierra Mountain music retreat, Sweet’s Mill, above Fresno, McCaslin met folksinger Jim Ringer. They became the touring duo that captured the romance of the desert, the mountains and the flat lands that lay between. McCaslin, sweet-voiced and lilting, matched up with Ringer, darker and rougher. Their 1978 duo album The Bramble and the Rose was an ideal description of them. That album, finally re-released in 2000, is one of the most requested reissues in the catalog of Rounder Records, which bought Philo. Ringer passed away in 1992. He was a kind of Grapes of Wrath son, whose folks had left the Dust Bowl in the 1940s to come to the land of California plenty.

“Our fans idealized the West,” McCaslin says. “Jim wore cowboy boots all his life. When we’d tour back East, I said to him, ‘They think we’re gonna ride up on horseback!’ ” She laughs. “They’d hear ‘Prairie in the Sky’ and didn’t realize it was metaphorical; I didn’t really have a blue roan. But, I’ve always wanted to ride a horse across the country and I haven’t done this … yet. And at 55, I’m not sure I’m going to get to it.”

Rugged individualist McCaslin has never been fenced in by musical categories, however. So Lennon-McCartney gems like “Things We Said Today” and “Blackbird” are in her repertoire. “Those Beatle songs are fun to do!” she enthuses. “Beautiful vocal harmonies. The Beatles were very folky. They had a passing acquaintance with the Everly Brothers, I can tell you that. Lots of English groups were more interested in American music than the Americans were for a long time, and kept it in the public ear.”

“In your ear” is what she might coyly signify when she performs a Who song. “I play ‘Pinball Wizard’ on the banjo,” she says. “It is fun. My own material tends to be fairly somber, and so when I perform, I like to mix it up. I do two Supremes songs too—'You Keep Me Hanging On’ and ‘My World is Empty Without You.’ It is a natural once people hear it.” Spoken like a true musician.

“I just like what I hear and do what I like,” McCaslin concludes. One new song she says she’ll perform is called “Acres of Houses.” “It is a song,” she says ruefully, “I’ll dedicate to the Palms.”—referring to the soon-to-be-bulldozed South Davis landmark, which will reopen in Winters in September.