Mary McCaslin, longtime Santa Cruz resident, folk music icon, dies at 76
SANTA CRUZ — Mary McCaslin, folk music icon and longtime Santa Cruz County resident, died Oct. 2 at age 76 at her home in Hemet. McCaslin battled progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s disease which she was diagnosed with in 2017.
Naturally, these are the lyrics to one of McCaslin’s songs that surfaced for Ginny Mitchell, a dear friend and collaborator of over 30 years, as she shared treasured memories of McCaslin with Sentinel earlier this week.
“But for those whose turn is over / Though they started much the same / In the hearts of those who befriended / Burn a candle with a silver flame,” sang Mitchell, who broke into an impromptu cover of the song called “Old Friends,” shortly after invoking its lyrics.
The song was written in 1977, when McCaslin was 31 and had just emerged as a true country-western music talent. The words now take on heightened resonance for McCaslin’s devoted family, friends and fans who have reveled in his lyricism for over 50 years.
“It’s so amazing, the songs she wrote when she was so young, with the wisdom of someone beyond her years,” Mitchell said. “She was just this soft-hearted, loving, generous human being, you know. An artist, a real artist and it’s such a loss.
By the time McCaslin moved to Santa Cruz in the late ’80s, she had already cemented her place in the folk music canon.
She was born on December 22, 1946 and was adopted by Russell and Lorraine McCaslin, who raised her in Redondo Beach.
She bought her first guitar at 15, and by 18 McCaslin had played her first gig at The Paradox cafe in Tustin. Word of her talent spread and it wasn’t long before she was appearing regularly at the iconic Troubadour’s Monday Night Hoots in West Hollywood, hosted by former Monkees member Mike Nesmith.
McCaslin took off in the 1970s, releasing several acclaimed albums, including “Way out West”, “Prairie in the Sky”, and “Old Friends”.
Friends and collaborators say McCaslin was the whole thing – poetic lyrics, a soft yet piercingly beautiful voice, and stunning musicianship.
“One of the things that amazed me the most was his guitar playing,” said Dave Nielsen, who owns a studio west of Santa Cruz and helped McCaslin record his latest album “Better Late Than Never”.
Nielsen said it was common for McCaslin to record two separate guitar tracks in a given song which would ultimately be played side by side in the final version. “When you do that, it’s never perfect. They push and pull each other a bit, because no one does it perfectly,” Nielsen said. “She played it absolutely identically and I’ve never met anyone who can do that.”
Nielsen added that McCaslin was also particularly good at “open tuning”, a method of tuning the guitar such that strumming without fretting the fingers generates a major or minor chord. He said it opened up his writing to seemingly endless possibilities.
In total, McCaslin released 12 albums where she explored the deeply personal and abundantly universal in topics such as family and adoption, Western self-mythification, and the ineffable beauty of the California landscape.
She was also known for her picture-perfect duets with Jim Ringer, to whom she was married until the late 1980s.
“It was just the whole package,” Mitchell said, recalling the first time she saw McCaslin and Ringer perform live at a UC Santa Cruz gig in the ’70s. remember saying ‘this is going to change my life’, not knowing that she was going to become a very dear friend.”
After her relationship with Ringer ended, McCaslin moved to Santa Cruz in 1989, where she reconnected with an old friend, Greg Arrufat, whom she would later marry.
Arrufat said he first met McCaslin in 1977 when she performed at a fundraiser he organized to help establish the Santa Cruz Mountains Community Theater. This served as an early example of a lifelong commitment by McCaslin, which occurred at fundraisers and community events throughout his career, particularly during his time in Santa Cruz.
McCaslin performed in Santa Cruz with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby and Graham Nash at the “no nukes” rally that marked the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She also cared for the community by teaching guitar and banjo, hosting a radio show on KZSC, and working at Sylvan Music on the west side of Santa Cruz for many years. She even had a column in the Sentinel for a while, Arrufat said.
In 1998, she was named the winner of the Gail Rich Award for her contributions to the county’s abundant artistic environment.
“Soon after we met, she was very prolific in her writing,” Arrufat told the Sentinel. “His album ‘Broken Promises’ is one of my favorites…the songs on it are pretty descriptive of what was going on in our lives.”
Arrufat noted that a song on the album, “Someone Who Looks Like Me”, explored McCaslin’s desire to understand his heritage and biological family. After years of searching, she finally managed to meet her birth mother, Oowanah Chasing Bear Mauser of the Kiowa-Apache tribe, in 2013. The event was of huge significance to her, Arrufat said.
But through his achingly beautiful songs, McCaslin manifested a musical family that spanned the globe and left a legacy of empathy and service.
“She was incredibly generous with her time and her music,” said longtime Santa Cruz radio host and close friend of McCaslin’s Rachel Goodman.
Goodman recalled that when she was hosting a Kentucky show in the early 1980s, an Australian listener wrote to her asking to hear more of the McCaslin music she was playing. The man was suffering from terminal cancer and said his songs brought him to tears.
“I sent him the whole ‘Prairie in the Sky’ album and he sent me another tape saying ‘this is the most peaceful I’ve ever felt,'” Goodman said. “This comfort that she provided to this person, I just wanted her to know and I told her this story.”
McCaslin and Arrufat left Santa Cruz in 2016 around the time issues with his vocal cords began to surface. But Arrufat says he plans to make Santa Cruz McCaslin’s final resting place.
“We lived (in Santa Cruz) together for so long and we have all our friends there and I know that’s where she would want to be.”
Services will be held for McCaslin at a later date. For more information, email [email protected].com.