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January 2023
Vol. 22, No. 4
In Good Company

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

A Lady Named Mary McCaslin

by Lou CurtissDecember 2011

Mary McCaslin

It was late in the year of 1968 and Bob Cline and Monroe Jeffery were running a coffee house in La Mesa called the Bifrost Bridge (in the old building that used to house another club with a Norse motif: The Land of Oden) and times were hard. Conrad Von Metzke, a mutual friend of ours, was trying to help them out by attracting some well-known performers to the club. I was sort of in the helping-out business too and had passed along some contacts outside of San Diego, resulting in securing a booking for the great Texas bluesman Sam “Lightning” Hopkins. So Conrad needed an opening act. I suggested that he talk to Ed Douglas, who, along with being part owner of the Blue Guitar, he was also in the sort of agent business for a number of performers. He did and Ed came up with this young performer Mary McCaslin who had just been signed to Capitol records and was making a name in L.A. clubs. Conrad went ahead and booked her and that’s how Mary came to San Diego the first time.

That first Capitol single (the Beatles song “Rain” and a Mike Nesmith song “That all happened once before”) is a collector’s item today and maybe the only way to get it would be to find the CD on the Bear Family label that issued those two sides and all the rest of the session she did for Capitol.

Mary started to come down this way more often, regularly playing at the Heritage in Mission Beach and other places (The Candy Company, etc). I had her play at the San Diego State Folk Festival for the first time in 1969 (in a duet with banjo player songstress Pam Ostergren whom she had met at the Heritage). That was the third Festival I did at SDSU and from then on Mary played at nearly all of the 20 festivals in that series.

Along about 1970 Mary recorded an LP recording for the Barnaby label (produced by San Diego’s own Larry Murray) called Goodnight Everybody (the only one of her many recordings that remains unissued) and started to get some attention from the festivals and clubs back East. She met Jim Ringer up at the Sweets Mill Folk Festival and soon the two of them were a team (on stage and in life). It was about this time that more and more of Mary’s songs started to be her own compositions. Together with Jim’s appearances with the Sweets Mill String Band, along with Kenny Hall, Jim was writing songs too.

On their next trip East Jim recorded a fine LP for the Folk Legacy label (now back in print as a CD) that Mary appeared on and a bit later she did her own LP for Vermont’s Philo label, featuring mostly her own songs. A couple of years at the SDSU Folk Festival and everyone was singing songs like “San Bernardino Waltz,” “Way Out West,” and later on her second LP Prairie in the Sky. She was also being written about for her vocal phrasing and particularly her use of complicated guitar tunings in accompaniment. She was included in articles about a “new breed of western song” and the “cowboy themes in her original songs” (like “Young Westley” and “Hollywood, my home away from home on the range”). When I started doing concerts at Folk Arts Rare Records (after the Heritage closed), Mary and Jim did one of the first (not only were they great people to listen to, they were also great to sit around and gab with).

Mary recorded five LPs for Philo over the next few years (Jim also did a couple that Mary played on) and the two of them did an album together (The Bramble and the Rose). Mary’s final album for Philo was in partnership with Mercury Records (titled Sunny California). Both Mary and Jim would go on to each do an LP for the Flying Fish label. Their last appearance together for me was at the last San Diego State Folk Festival (the 20th) in 1987. The last time I saw them together was at the Old Time Cafe in North County in about 1990. Jim died just a few years after that appearance.

Mary continued to perform although for awhile not as often, and I think she only got down to San Diego once in the first part of the ‘90s for a San Diego Folk Heritage concert. When I started to put together the Adams Avenue Roots Festival in 1994 it was a certainty that I would invite old friend Mary McCaslin to play and she has played at both Roots and at the Adams Avenue Street Fair. Her old record label Philo sold out to Rounder Records, which has reissued most of her LPs on CD (including the Flying Fish LPs because Rounder also bought Flying Fish). In the last few years Mary has issued a couple of CDs worth of her newer material. You can check out her website for more information. (

Mary’s latest project is a tour with some fellow musicians doing Jim Ringer’s songs. I’m going to be presenting their show at the Normal Heights Community Center (4649 Hawley Blvd., one block south of Adams Avenue in Normal Heights). The date of that show is Friday, January 6, 2012, at 8pm. It’s your chance to see a California music legend who has influenced a generation of singer/songwriter guitarists. Don’t miss it.

Lou Curtiss

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