Deckle edge

Mary McCaslin
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published April 1993 Minuteman Chronicle)

Mary McCaslin
Mary McCaslin speaks in quick clipped phrases. Her voice has a rootsy resonance that hides little emotion and rides on matter-of-fact dialect. It speaks of resilience and fortitude. She has both qualities and, as of late, has had to rely on them a little too often. As a singer-songwriter, she has been up and down, known and unknown, played, forgotten and played again. Her influence far exceeds her own fame and her career is an experiment in patience and persistence.

In the early 1970s, Mary McCaslin was a regularly played (and requested) singer-songwriter on the folk circuit. Her songs painted sweeping images of the West with brush strokes as broad as the wide open plains. Although many of her songs delved into common topics of human relationships and the emotional investment of the heart, McCaslin is best known for her diversely colorful ballads that sing of renegade outlaws, open prairies and the sadly disappearing railroads. While her voice glides between a mellow twang and a lofty falsetto, she is as comfortable singing about saddlebags and gun fights as she is about broken hearts.

It is also a voice that has been sorely missed. The re-emergence of the acoustic singer-songwriter (also known as the "folk musician") has pointed out her significant, albeit, quiet role in it's foundation. After a long and painful absence, Mary McCaslin is back. She explains in a recent telephone interview from her home in Santa Cruz, "I dropped out of music because my husband was very ill. We were reaching the end of our marriage and I didn't have the energy to pursue my career." Leaving a sick husband to travel and perform across the country was too much. "I couldn't tour when I knew Jim was home and needed my help. It just wasn't the same without him."

McCaslin was married to the late Jim Ringer, an equally influential singer-songwriter who is best known as her performing partner and writer of similar rugged ballads. Together, they were a popular folk act throughout the 70s. Playing festivals and coffeehouses up and down both coasts, their marriage and musical careers became literally entwined. Mary was found singing backup on Jim's albums and he in return played rhythm guitar or helped out by writing for her albums.

They eventually collaborated and recorded "The Bramble and The Rose," which stands as a perfect snapshot of two diverse lives wrapped around each other in symbolic and musical harmony. Sadly, Ringer passed away in March of 1992 after a long, debilitating illness.

Before her relationship with Jim Ringer, Mary had already established herself as a songwriter of great depth. With short-lived recording contracts on Capitol and Barnaby records, she finally found her niche in folk music. Folk by definition, but not by practice. Her songs took on a much larger aura than the simple delivery of her lyrics. She explains, "Part of my sound comes from the way I tune my guitar. I play open tunings which makes the sound fuller than it really is." Her method of playing not only fills out her music , but it is the source of her distinct sound.

McCaslin's style of playing fits the mood of the songs and the songs fit the breadth of the West. Although she was musically influenced by Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, it is her affection for Marty Robbins that is most prevalent in her songs. Robbins' ballads of gun fighters and western renegades hold a similar romantic appeal for a time gone by.

The advent of the compact disc has brought new life to her older material. Until recently Mary was touring and selling vinyl albums at her concerts. She recalls, "People would keep asking me when my old recordings would be released on CD. So even though I was trying to make a comeback of sorts, the CD really helped to get my older songs back on the air."

Her latest release, Things We Said Today is a compilation of her work. And although it has been close to 15 years, the songs have not aged. "There are a lot of younger people who are unfamiliar with my older material. With a CD, I now have a chance to be played again on the air."

Things We Said Today came about as a result of a strange, almost psychic experience. Mary remembers, " I was doing a tour back East, playing at Passim (in Cambridge). I kept getting so many requests for my older material that I decided to drop a post card to the owner of my old label to see if he would be interested in re-releasing at least one of my albums, titled, Best of Mary McCaslin. I dropped the card in the mailbox just before I went on stage in Cambridge. When I finished the show two people were waiting outside my dressing room who said they were from the label and wanted to know if I would be interested in compiling a collection of my songs for a CD. Stunned, I replied 'That was fast.'

Aside from her own self-penned songs, Mary has a knack for choosing tasteful material that fits her vocal range and style well. Her version of the Beatles "Things We Said Today" remains one of the few definitive covers of the song. The same is true for her version of the Supremes,"My World Is Empty Without You." Both songs, although from opposite ends of the rock spectrum, share equal charm under McCaslin's haunting readings.

Today, folk and country cross each other's paths with such regularity it is difficult to distinguish who is influencing whom. Mary McCaslin is a direct cause for much of that interaction. Her influence is seen in the work of contemporary songwriters such as Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams and Iris DeMent. Alone with a guitar and her songs of the West, she helped to form a bond between these two not-so-distant musical cousins.

Even though McCaslin's re-issued material is receiving a considerable amount of airplay, she is currently writing new material. "I am not a prolific writer," she explains, "I will go months without writing anything new. But I have learned to accept that and not push the creative process. It will come when it comes. I write when I write." Time is now on her side and judging from her past, the output is well worth the wait.

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge