Moving Forward: Musical Mike McCabe 

Written by Judy Salamacha

April 26, 2024

“Music is the universal language of mankind,”poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote. Central Coast musician Mike McCabe has experienced this truism as he spent a lifetime following his muse. 

In the 19th century, Longfellow coined the phrase and yet it wasn’t until 2014, that someone questioned the scientific validity of the claim. Harvard graduate student, Manvir Singh, probed the question, and for five years a team of Harvard cultural scientists took a deep dive listening and comparing 118 musical examples in 86 cultures in 30 geographic regions dating back to the Celts (1200-700bc.) 

A November 2019 study confirms the concept can be documented. Their journey can be discovered in The Harvard Gazette (, which concluded, “… across societies, music is associated with behaviors such as infant care, healing, dance, and love (among many others, like mourning, warfare, processions, and ritual).”    

Music is everywhere on the Central Coast. I was born and grew up where the Bakersfield Sound was created, so music appreciation is in my DNA. When we moved to Morro Bay over 20 years ago, our first festival – and probably still my favorite – was produced by Morro Bay’s renowned banjoist Gary “Goofy Graphics” Ryan. It was downtown at three or four venues and the attendees moved during set breaks to catch all headliners in a more intimate setting than an outdoor park or concert arena. I hoped it would return annually, but Gary told me he was a musician with lots of musical friends that he performed with throughout our nation who loved coming to Morro Bay, but he was not an events’ planner, and no one had stepped up to organize the wintertime festival. Any savvy planners ready to make it happen in 2025? 

But I digressed. My curiosity since moving to the Central Coast has always been whether a local musician could make a living sharing his/her musical talent. Recently, Mike McCabe was offering background tunes at a Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce monthly mixer hosted by Savory Palette on the Embarcadero. I had enjoyed other sessions when Mike entertained at Tognazzini’s Dockside II, the Morro Bay Maritime Museum Family Fun Day, and Open Mic Thursdays at Savory Palette. It was time for me to ask my burning question. 

Mike McCabe as a kid jamming on his guitar. Photo submitted

What I discovered was Mike McCabe’s DNA probably dates to a wandering minstrel who roamed during the Middle Ages somewhere between the 11th and 15th centuries. He followed the music wherever it took him – although roads always led back to the Estero Bay. Mike has lived the life of a travelling musician and singer since his teen years. 

“No one in my family was musical except maybe my grandfather who played the harmonica,” Mike said. “I remember I was six when I watched Ricky Nelson on ‘The Ozzie & Harriet Show.’ Ricky always seemed to get the girls. So, I started music lessons and loved it.” 

He grew up in Torrance, CA and played in a rock ‘n roll band in high school.  “Performing is an addictive process…if they like you,” he said. And audiences have continued to like him for 50 years. 

Mike followed friends to Maui, Hawaii, when he was nineteen. “I bought a round trip plane ticket then cashed in the return ticket.” He stayed a year before traveling back to the mainland, his first taste of living on the Central Coast. “Because I met a woman — the downfall of any good man,” he said with a smile. “That was 1973, when we met and married too young. Connie lived in Cambria and was attending Cuesta. Her true instrument was her voice.” They performed together in the 1974-5 era of Café Porta Via in Cambria, a pizza and beer coffee house. Their marriage lasted “a whole 25 months.” He and Connie McCabe are still good friends, he was pleased to say.

But Mike was able to connect with several musicians during the time, including Mark Ellery, who he still performs with. Those early days they performed Latin Jazz at Sea Chest Oyster Bar while people waited for their table. “Then we played the little Italian place by the Fremont in SLO (Buona Tavola) and enjoyed Sunday afternoons at the Mersea’s Restaurant at the end of the Pier in Avila.” 

Mike found his muse for a while in Santa Cruz, then returned to SLO in 1995. His groups were The Bushman and Rough House Band. There was three years in Arizona playing with the group Pretty Slick before Hawaii called him back. He was with Rough House again. They introduced honky-tonk and rock-a-billy to the Islands.  

“We played the resort hotels, but when we had to play too many backtracks, I knew it wasn’t my style,” said Mike. He returned to the Central Coast. “I love a live performance. You can do that in the SLO music scene. And if you make a mistake – it is all part of playing live.” 

Wanderlust bit him again in September 2015. He bought a motorhome and for over four months toured the USA stopping for gigs along the way. “I played 32 venues loving the time.” He said he especially liked Memphis, The Sun Studio, Graceland, Nashville, New Orleans, and the Key West piano bar that American author Ernest Hemingway frequented.  

Today he’s settled back into the SLO life and enjoying playing a variety of musical gigs. He seeks them out or they come to him – background like we heard at the chamber mixer or restaurant and wine bar entertainment like the Savory Palette and Tognazzini’s Dockside II. His wanderlust is now enjoying duo trips “…with my girlfriend, Irene Saurwein. We love to travel together.” Portugal has become their go-to place when they aren’t in the Estero Bay. 

So, can a musician make it financially playing his/her music on the Central Coast? Probably helps to have some retirement funds and the willingness to play lots of gigs. And if the musician or group has established a name and a following, Mike agrees the 2024 music scene offers plenty of venues to share one’s music.  “We play for the love of music – that addiction for playing to a live audience.” 

Find Mike at Tognazzini’s Dockside II on Wednesday and first Saturdays of the month typically with Mark Ellery and Michael Hollier. The group is Deuce’s Wild. Mike accepts invitations for other gigs – individually or with the group – when he is available and not playing the life of a traveling minstrel. Most Thursdays you’ll find him on the list of performers who sign up to share their music at Open Mic at Savory Palette at Marina Square on the Embarcadero from 6:30 p.m. – 10-ish. Professional musicians or those working their way into the Estero Bay music scene are welcome. 

Or maybe you’ve always wondered what it would be like to play for a live audience. You, too, are welcome at Open Mic Night. Just show-up, sign-up, and play your set to an appreciative audience and then cheer on your fellow musicians.  

“We live in a community that loves live music and encourages us to play.” Mike said.  

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