Mary McCaslin
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Mary McCaslin


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"Unsung Heroes"

Unsung Heroes: Mary McCaslin
Arthur Wood
March 10, 2004
My first love was a member of the Hearts and Flowers scene." Mary's childhood expectations of what lay way out west, became a recurring theme in her work. Other themes found on that first Philo release include, life on the road (from a joyous and positive perspective), an outlaw's life in the Old West, and the necessity of having friends one can fall back upon.
Released in 1975, Mary co-produced Prairie In The Sky with Jim Ringer, and the singularly acoustic instrumentation employed on her debut, was fleshed out by the inclusion of a pedal steel guitar. This augmentation lent a Country feel to Mary's songs. Of the dozen tracks, Mary penned four and co-wrote, with Jim, "Ballad Of Weaverville," the tale of a gambler who woos and wins the girl of his dreams against all the odds. The remaining tracks included the Western standards "Pass Me By" and "Ghost Riders In The Sky." In "Last Canonball" McCaslin yearns for the steams trains that once plied the old west. The title track proves to be a eulogy to freedom, particularly in terms of possessing the capability to travel, wherever and whenever you want. Marty Robbins' "My Love" closes the album, and lyrically encapsulates Mary's western philosophy.
As hinted by the album title, Old Friends which appeared in 1977, brought together some of Mary's favourite songs by other writers. Except that is, for the self-composed title track that closed this ten-song set. Side One opened and closed respectively with Lennon and McCartney's "Things We Said Today" and Pete Townshend's "Pinball Wizard." The latter may appear to be an odd choice musically for this Folk/Country artist. McCaslin places her stamp indelibly on the songs. Three tunes that loosely shared a western theme were wedged between the latter titles - the timeless "Oklahoma Hills" by Woody Guthrie; "Wendigo," a focus on the Spirit of Death; while Bob "Sons of the Pioneers" Nolan's "Way Out There" described the loneliness experienced while crossing a desert. Thematically, freedom pervades the song lyrics on the second half of the recording. There's Tex Ritter's 1956 chart success "Wayward Wind," while "Blackbird," yet another Lennon and McCartney cover, featured stunning banjo work by Mary. The depth of feeling and breadth of description that Mary attained with "Old Friends," marked the song out as one of her best. For newcomers to Mary's work, this album is probably her most accessible.
During 1978, Mary worked on the soundtrack of the documentary film Of Babies And Banners. The film charted the rise of the American Woman's Movement. It was subsequently nominated for an American Academy of Motion Picture Arts Award. During that year, Jim and Mary were married. At the ceremony, they performed the Barbara Keith tune, "The Bramble & The Rose." It provided the title of the Philo album they cut together as a duo. Boasting a cover portrait of the duo by the multi-talented, painter, writer, and musician, Eric Von Schmidt, the album was the brainchild of their manager Mitch Greenhill and Philo's Bill Schubart. It featured material that the pair regularly performed in concert, and The Bramble & The Rose remains, in my opinion, one of the finest duo albums ever released. Its success as a recording, lies in the alchemy that merges Jim's gruff and gravel sounding bass with Mary's lighter alto, and no original compositions were included on this 1978 recording. The work of contemporary composers, Michael (Martin) Murphey and Herb Pedersen, lie side by side with Ralph Stanley's "Rank Strangers" and the traditional "Canaan's Land." The sombre, traditional lament "Oh Death" is given a haunting treatment, only to be followed by the up-tempo rhythms of "Hit The Road, Jack," and yet as a collection the dozen songs gel wonderfully.
During late 1978, Philo took the rare step of releasing a single of "Things We Said Today," a track from the Old Friends album. It charted in a number of the Northwestern states, particularly strongly in Oregon. As a result, Old Friends began to sell in, what was for Philo, relatively large quantities. With Mary's popularity at an all-time high, Philo signed a production deal with Mercury Records, for the recording and release of her next solo album. Titled Sunny California and co-produced by Mary with Michael Couture, it appeared in 1979. These days, it is still available from Philo on cassette. Although her previous work was generally acoustic, strings are prominently featured on Sunny California. Due to a lack of promotion by Mercury, the album was not a commercial success. Mary performed at The Roxy in Los Angeles, in support of the release as the opening act for Orleans, hardly a billing that was targeted at followers of her music.
None of the latter should detract from the fact that Sunny California is another classic McCaslin creation. The title track lyric, explores the myth that California is a land of milk and honey. Her affection for sixties' music manifests itself again, with The Drifters' "Save The Last Dance For Me" and Sam Cooke's "Cupid." In her "Dust Devils," the passage of time is exquisitely and poetically equated to those violent dust storms that traverse the American plains. As if to prove that her taste in music was neither blinkered, nor catholic, Louden Wainwright's amusing "The Swimming Song" is given the McCaslin treatment.
The soundtrack to the 1980 Burt Lancaster film, Cattle Annie And Little Britches boasted a couple of songs which Jim and Mary contributed. Purporting to be based on the true story of two young girls who joined the notorious Doolin' Dalton gang, the movie gained glowing press reviews, but the expected droves of customers never materialised at the box office. The film enjoyed a U.K. video release during the early eighties. During the same year, Mary and Jim appeared at the Kerrville Folk Festival. When the Live Highlights album for that year was subsequently released, their theme song "The Bramble & the Rose" was included. In 1981, the pair played the prestigious Vancouver Folk Festival. Mary and Jim were operating from a base in San Bernadino, California, at this time. During 1981 they were filmed at home (with their clan of basset hounds) as well as on the road performing, for a sixty minute documentary, that was subsequently screened by the Public Broadcasting Service station WOUB, based in Athens, Ohio.
At the dawn of the eighties, Mitch Greenhill negotiated a one-off deal for Mary to record an album for the Chicago-based Flying Fish label, a disc he also produced. Released in the spring of 1981, the sessions for A Life And A Time, took place at Hit City West in Los Angeles. Only three of Mary's compositions appear on the release, including a reappraisal of "Northfield" from Way Out West. Mary also re-cut "You Keep Me Hangin' On." The remaining songs include Jim Ringer's "The Band Of Jesse James" and "Some Of Shelley's Blues" by Michael Nesmith. The title track, penned by Mary, recalls through the memories of his family, a beloved father who had passed away, while "Santana Song" focuses on the hardships pioneers endured while working the land during the late nineteenth century.
In 1984 Philo released a Best of Mary McCaslin collection. Almost a decade later, they followed it with the eighteen-song retrospective Things We Said Today. Through the eighties, Ringer's health deteriorated and their public appearances eventually ground to a halt. The couple separated towards the close of the decade. In March 1992, Jim Ringer passed away. Mary relocated to Santa Cruz, where she worked as a DJ on a local radio station and continues to tour nationally as a solo act. Confirming her status as a respected Folk/Country performer, Mary's "Way Out West" was included on the compilation, Philo So Far...The 20th Anniversary Folk Sampler, which appeared midway through 1994.
In April 1994, Mary performed at the Philo showcase during the annual South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. One month later, Philo released her seventh and, to date, most recent solo album. Titled Broken Promises, for me it was a long awaited fruition. Quoting from Mary's liner notes, "So much time has passed since my last recording that the possibility of making an album of new songs seemed like a far-off dream." Thirteen years on from A Life And A Time I never gave up hope that Mary would record another solo album. Now, almost a decade after Broken Promises, that dream still burns strong and true.
Broken Promises, was co-produced by Mary and Steve Netsky, and the recording sessions took place at the Soundworks Studio in Watertown, Massachusetts. Featuring ten new McCaslin songs, at turns on Broken Promises, her lyrics displayed anger and uncertainty, as well as humility, hope and humanity. There was certainly a powerful maturity to her writing. Considering Mary's experiences through the eighties, it's hardly surprising that her principal focus lyrically should have become relationships. "There's No Way To Say Goodbye" and "You're Gone" are powerful testaments to lost love, while "Ghost Train" adequately proved that Mary's original vision of things way out west remained intact.
Early on in this tale, I mentioned that circa 1967/68 Mary cut an album for Capitol Records. In 1999 the German reissue imprint Bear Family Records issued an eighteen-track collection titled Rain. In a recording career that has spanned well over three decades, McCaslin's work remains original, valid, fresh, and vibrant. During the years that elapsed between A Life And Time and Broken Promises, Nanci Griffith and Iris DeMent became Philo artists and passed on to major label deals, each gaining a degree of fame and fortune in the process. If you are faintly interested in the music of the latter performers, let me offer a piece of contention - musically, Griffith and DeMent can't hold a candle to the Folk/Country queen, Mary McCaslin - vocally, or in their considerable abilities as songwriters. It is a testament to the quality of her music that eight of Mary's albums, including Rain, remain in Rounder/Philo catalogue.
- Folkwax Magazine - Arthur Wood

"Better Late Than Never"

Mary McCaslin was born on December 22, 1946, at St. Elizabeth Nursing Home located in the Indianapolis, Indiana, suburb of Beechgrove and soon afterwards was given up for adoption. When McCaslin was aged six her adoptive parents moved to Los Angeles initially settling in the suburb of Redondo Beach and later moving to Norwalk. Raised on a diet of television westerns McCaslin quickly became enamoured with the lore of the cowboy and the life of Native American tribes on America's wide-open, unblemished plains.
McCaslin also developed a love of Country and Western music at an early age. By her mid-teens that affair was tested by the arrival in the United States of The Beatles and other British Pop bands, as well as the rise and rise of Detroit's stable of Tamla Motown label hit makers. Aged fifteen McCaslin purchased her first guitar, a Stella. Three years later McCaslin began performing regularly at The Paradox, an Orange County coffeehouse and later at other West Coast venues. Working a day job at a telephone company, the teenager persevered with her music career. Aged 21 McCaslin cut a single for the Capitol label which teamed acoustic interpretations of Lennon/McCartney's "Rain" with Michael Nesmith's "This All Happened Once Before." The sessions, produced by the late Nik Venet, also yielded an album that finally saw the light of day in 1999. Released by the German-based label Bear Family Records it was titled Rain - The Lost Album. In 1967 Happy Is The..., the liner of the debut album by The Sunshine Company contained the credit "A special thank you to Miss Mary McCaslin for her guidance on 'Rain' and 'I Need You.'"
Goodnight Everybody, McCaslin's debut solo album, produced by Larry Murray (ex-Hearts & Flowers), was released by the now defunct Barnaby label during 1969. This collection of eleven cover songs included "You Keep Me Hangin' On," a mid-1960s chart hit for the Supremes and Vanilla Fudge. In 1980 the Piccadilly subsidiary of the Washington State-based First National label reissued the album as Blue Ridge Epitaph. In the summer of 1972 while performing at California's Sweets Mill Folk Festival, McCaslin met performing songwriter Jim Ringer. The pair soon began performing together, a partnership that lasted for over a decade. 1973 saw McCaslin cut her sophomore album for the then-fledgling North Ferrisburg, Vermont-based Folk label, Philo. Way Out West was the first of three consecutive discs McCaslin recorded for the imprint and the eleven-track collection featured eight McCaslin-penned originals.
Released in 1975 and featuring more McCaslin originals she co-produced Prairie In The Sky with Jim Ringer, while two years on Old Friends was a collection of McCaslin's favourite songs by other writers. The ten-song set closed with the McCaslin-composed, album title song. During 1978 she worked on the soundtrack of the documentary Of Babies And Banners, which charted the rise of the American Woman's Movement. During the same year Ringer and McCaslin were married. Having performed the Barbara Keith tune "The Bramble & The Rose" at their wedding, the following year they cut a duo album of cover songs of the same name for Philo. The front of the album liner featured a portrait of Ringer and McCaslin by the multi-talented writer, musician, and painter Eric Von Schmidt.
In the late 1970s Philo signed a production deal with Mercury Records and the latter imprint released the McCaslin and Michael Couture-produced Sunny California. Under promoted by Mercury the album was not a major seller. Alongside five McCaslin originals and a cover of Ringer's "The California Zephyr," there were covers of 1960s classics "Save The Last Dance For Me" and Sam Cooke's "Cupid." Ringer and McCaslin contributed a couple of songs to the 1980 Burt Lancaster movie Cattle Annie And Little Britches. In the spring of 1981 McCaslin signed with the now-defunct, Chicago-based Flying Fish label and they issued the Mitch Greenhill-produced A Life And A Time. The disc featured three of McCaslin's compositions including a reappraisal of "Northfield" from Way Out West and a new version of the cover song "You Keep Me Hangin' On." There were also readings of Jim Ringer's "The Band Of Jesse James" and Michael Nesmith's "Some Of Shelley's Blues."
In 1984 Philo released the compilation The Best of Mary McCaslin, and followed eight years later with a CD version sub-titled "Things We Said Today." Through the 1980s Ringer's health deteriorated and public appearances by the duo eventually ground to a halt. They separated towards the close of that decade and in March 1992 Jim Ringer passed. McCaslin relocated to Santa Cruz, where she presented her Fat Farm music show on local radio station KZSC for a number of years. She also became a guitar teacher at a local store, Sylvan Music, and continues to occasionally contribute features to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. McCaslin has continued to tour nationally and in 1994 her composition "Way Out West" was included on the celebratory compilation Philo So Far...The 20th Anniversary Folk Sampler.
In the late spring of 1994, returning to Philo, the label released McCaslin's seventh solo album, Broken Promises, a collection of ten McCaslin originals and three covers, including Lennon/McCartney's "Help." In her liner notes she wrote, "So much time has passed since my last recording that the possibility of making an album of new songs seemed like a far-off dream." A thirteen-year gap separated A Life And A Time and Broken Promises and an almost similar gap ensued before the appearance of her next studio recording, the appropriately-titled, self-release, Better Late Than Never. The latter twelve-song collection featured five McCaslin originals/co-writes plus covers such as Neil Young's "Losing End" and Jackson Browne's "You've Forgotten." In 1999 the aforementioned archive recording Rain finally surfaced. On June 15, 2002, McCaslin joined Lacy J. Dalton and Ginny Mitchell on the stage of Santa Cruz High's Performing Arts Theatre for a benefit concert to help save the wild horses of Storey County, Nevada. An in concert CD and DVD, titled Girls From Santa Cruz, was subsequently released. These days McCaslin lives in Santa Cruz with her second husband, Greg Arrufat.
With Jim Ringer: The Bramble & The Rose [1978]
With Lacy J. Dalton & Ginny Mitchell: Girls From Santa Cruz also available on DVD [2002]
Solo: Goodnight Everybody [1969]; Way Out West [1973]; Prairie In The Sky [1975]; Old Friends [1977]; Sunny California [1979]; A Life And A Time [1981]; The Best Of Mary McCaslin compilation [1984]; The Best Of Mary McCaslin: Things We Said Today compilation [1992]; Broken Promises [1994]; Rain - The Lost Album [1999]; Better Late Than Never [2006]
Arthur Wood
- Folkwax Magazine - Arthur Wood



Mary McCaslin Music

* Better Late Than Never - New CD released 11/06 MMM001

Sweet Briar Records -

* Girls from Santa Cruz - DVD and CD of concert with Lacy J. Dalton and Ginny Mitchell - Mitchell/Collins Productions

Bear Family Records-

* RAIN - The Lost Album - Bear Family BCD 16232 AH (1968 Capitol recordings)


* "A LIFE AND TIME" - Flying Fish CDFLY203 (re-issue)
* "THE BRAMBLE AND THE ROSE" - Philo 1055 (re-issue)
* "THINGS WE SAID TODAY" - Philo 1149 (compilation of early Philo recordings) - 1992
* "BROKEN PROMISES" - Philo 1160 - 1994
* "PRAIRIE IN THE SKY" - Philo 1024 - 1995 (re-issue)
* "OLD FRIENDS" - Philo 1046 - 1996 (re-issue)
* "WAY OUT WEST" - Philo 1011 - 1998 (re-issue)

LP's and Cassettes:
Philo / Rounder -

* "WAY OUT WEST" - Philo 1011 - 1974
* "PRAIRIE IN THE SKY" - Philo 1024 - 1975
* "OLD FRIENDS" - Philo 1046 - 1977
* "SUNNY CALIFORNIA" - Philo 1099 - 1986 (originally on Mercury - 1979)
* "THE BRAMBLE AND THE ROSE" - Philo 1055 (duet with Jim Ringer) - 1978

Flying Fish-

* "A LIFE AND TIME" - Flying Fish 203 - 1981

LP (out of print)
Barnaby Records

* "GOODNIGHT EVERYBODY" - Barnaby 1969



“A great composer and interpreter.”

"Mary McCaslin is an inspiration"

“- a sage writer, warmly expressive singer and exquisite player.”

“- a songwriter’s songwriter."

"McCaslin's real-life western songs and earthy romanticism were profoundly influential among songwriters in the '70s. Too often overlooked is the great impact her guitar playing also had on the acoustic scene.”

L. A. TIMES (feature on mystery writer Walter Mosley)
“Mosley is a conundrum who pulls from Louis Armstrong and folk singer Mary
McCaslin with equal fervor and fascination."

"She sounds as if she had risen out of the Western soil and became its voice."

Mary McCaslin represents an unbroken link between traditional folksingers and today's "new folk" singer-songwriters. Her music ranges from ballads of the old west to her own songs of the new west and modern times. Regarded as a pioneer of open guitar tunings, and known for her distinctive vocal style, Mary's influences can be heard in many younger folk performers.

She is also known for her haunting renditions of pop standards and rock classics, such as "Ghost Riders In The Sky", "The Wayward Wind", the Beatles' "Things We Said Today", and the Supremes' "My World Is Empty". Her versions of the Beatles' "Blackbird" and the Who's "Pinball Wizard" are made more unique by her "clawhammer" banjo accompaniment.

Mary's musical influences are as varied as her repertoire: The western ballads of Marty Robbins, the guitar playing of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, the singing and banjo playing of Hedy West, and the vocal inflections of the Beatles and the BeeGees.

Her songs have been recorded by Tom Russell, Bill Staines, Gretchen Peters ("Prairie In The Sky"), Chris Williamson ("Circle Of Friends"), David Bromberg ("Young Westley"), Kate Wolf ("The Ballad Of Weaverville"), Stan Rogers ("Down The Road"), Kate MacLeod ("Way Out West") and others. The Grand Canyon Railroad has used her song "Last Cannonball" for its promotional television ad.