It’s been more than two decades since Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer harmonized their last song together. At Berkeley Café on Sunday, McCaslin will revive many of the duets she and Ringer recorded on such iconic albums as 1978’s “The Bramble and the Rose.”
McCaslin is touring with California singer/songwriter Rick Shea, a former member of Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men. Shea will pick and sing the parts recorded by Ringer, who died in 1982. The tour marks the fourtieth year since McCaslin and Ringer met, and the 20-year anniversary of Ringer’s death. Yet McCaslin says those landmarks – one joyous, the other sad – did not figure into plans for the tour.
“I’ve known Rick a few years,” McCaslin says by phone en route to a gig in Montana. “He . . . used to come see me and Jim when we would play the Penny University, which was a little folk club in San Bernadino.
“Rick asked me if I would like to do this. I said, ‘Yes, it sounds great.’ I love singing those songs. There were many times that I thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to be doing them again.’ Rick is such a marvelous musician and wonderful singer. So it’s worked out very well.”
McCaslin came of age during the folk music boom of the 1960s. She belonged to a creative California community of musicians and was known for her love of songs about the West. Her albums included original compositions such as “Prairie in the Sky ” and “Old Friends,” along with such classics as “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “The Wayward Wind.”
Born in Indiana, McCaslin moved to California with her family at age 6. There, she discovered a West far different from the one she’d imagined. “I thought there would be ranches and wide open spaces and horses. We moved to the suburbs and it wasn’t anything like what I wanted it to be. So [I’ve had] a life-long love of the open range.”
Her interpretations of the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today,” the Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” and the Supremes’ “My World is Empty Without You” transposed rock to folk, giving her albums eclectic breadth while grounding them in her folk and country roots.
“I knew people who liked country and folk music,” she says. “That was very important to me because a lot of the music was going very commercial. That just wasn’t the way I was going to be. I liked the smaller coffee houses then. I was, and am, friends with John McEwan of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I knew Mike Nesmith before he achieved “Monkeydom.” He’s a wonderful singer and songwriter. They were an inspiration to me.”
McCaslin was also inspired by musicians she played with, and whose recordings she was hearing. From folk favorite Hedy West, she was inspired to learn clawhammer-style banjo. Her banjo-driven interpretation of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” established her as one of the premier stylists of the era.
Her style is also defined by her use of open guitar tunings, which complement her distinctive vocals with chiming guitar voicings.
“I wanted something to sound fuller and different,” she says. “I listened to Joni Mitchell’s first three albums. She played a lot in open tunings. Her song ‘Nathan La Franeer’ is on her first album. There’s a chord she plays that you cannot duplicate in standard tuning. I said, ‘Oh, she’s in open tuning. I get this.’ So I figured it out and then I came to G-minor tuning that I play on ‘Prairie in the Sky.’ It works great.”
Like the cowboys and cowgirls of the Old West, McCaslin is drawn to the freedom of the road. She and her husband post videos of their travels on her website, Alongtheamericanmusicroad.com.
“Rick Shea and Mary McCaslin Sing the Songs of Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin” is a five-song CD that previews the show they’ll bring to Raleigh. While she hasn’t mapped out her future beyond the current tour, McCaslin’s fans can be sure they’ll include musical reflections on the West of her dreams.
“I’d like to do another EP, just of my songs,” she says. “But at age 65, I don’t know.”