Mary Ramsey still finds it hard to believe, with all of today’s media outlets, that some people somehow missed her crucial career bulletin from 1993. It was when she quietly joined 10,000 Maniacs as violinist/backing vocalist for its landmark “MTV Unplugged” album, with her guitarist partner from her duo John and Mary in tow. Two years later, she permanently took over as lead singer when original frontwoman Natalie Merchant went solo. Ramsey logged her first Top 40 Maniacs hit almost immediately: the jangly reworking of Roxy Music’s trademark “More Than This” showcased her warm, Merchant-evocative style.
“But sometimes people don’t even know that the band’s still together,” she says.
In her early days with the group, Ramsey, 54 — who brings 10,000 Maniacs to town this week — was often mistaken for Merchant by fans.
“Because when we were younger, we both had the same coloring, brown hair and brown eyes,” says the Buffalo, N.Y. native. “Right now, there are so many ways to find out things, like Twitter, texting, cellphones, but still some people know what’s happening with our band after all these years, some don’t. So I just say, ‘Look at the website, this is what we’ve been doing.”
Currently, the group is backing last year’s “Live at the Belly Up” disc. This year also marks three decades since the outfit’s breakthrough album, “In My Tribe.” Ramsey says, “It seems like every time we go on tour now, we’re celebrating another anniversary.”
In retrospect, Ramsey realizes what a potentially disastrous move it was for a virtual unknown to take over for such an idiosyncratic stylist as Merchant: “I was sort of thinking clearly what I was doing, but I also wasn’t,” she says. “That’s always been my life’s path. I just kind of go with the flow.”
But her resume was rock-solid. At age 5, she started playing violin, then switched to her instrument of choice, viola, before delving into classical music, even improvisational jazz. The Maniacs sensed her confidence.
“I had a lot of other musical experience when I joined, and I wasn’t some teenager. I respected 10,000 Maniacs music, so it was a path I wanted to take,” says Ramsey, who went on to do outside session work with artists like Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg and the late Warren Zevon.
When she’s home, Ramsey moonlights as a mobile violin and viola instructor. She’s been doing house calls so long that a lot of her earliest students have now grown up and formed Buffalo bands, usually moving to guitar. “Yesterday, they were little kids, but now they’re bigger than I am,” she says. “But I still think violin and viola are great ways to get sensitive to music.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Independent, 628 Divisadero St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 30
Tickets: $32 to $35
Contact: (415) 771-1421, www.ticketfly.com