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Dennis Caplinger, Grammy winner who played with Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale, dies

Dennis Caplinger
Dennis Caplinger, a versatile musician whose recording partners included Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale as well as Vince Gill and One Direction, was 57.
(Dennis Andersen / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

If multi-instrumental wizard Dennis Caplinger had any musical limitations, they were all but inaudible in a career that stretched from his teen years in the pioneering San Diego band Bluegrass Etc. in the mid-1970s until shortly before his death.

A featured musician on Grammy-winning albums by Eric Clapton and JJ Cale in 2007 and Buck Howdy in 2010, Caplinger died Aug. 14 in Encinitas. He was 58 and had been hospitalized for about a month. The cause of death was complications from sepsis, according to his son and fellow musician, Zachary Caplinger.

“My dad was very humble and never asked for any sort of compliments,” Zachary Caplinger said. “But, from as far back as I can recall, he couldn’t go to a gig without everybody showering him with praise. He was the consummate professional, and he rose to every occasion.”

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Those sentiments are shared by Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, a veteran singer-songwriter who credits Dennis Caplinger for consistently elevating his music.

“If not for Dennis’ brilliance, I wouldn’t even have had one Grammy nomination, let alone four and a Grammy win,” said Vaus, who records under the name Buck Howdy.

Dennis Fulton Caplinger was born May 10, 1963, in Oceanside. Drawn to music while growing up in Vista, he was only 13 when he co-founded Bluegrass Etc. with guitarist/mandolinist John Moore and his guitar-playing sister, Julie Moore.

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“That single thing of starting to play with them, more so than anything else, influenced me as a kid trying to play bluegrass,” Caplinger said in a 2017 Union-Tribune interview. “Because they were really good for teenagers!”

“We play between 10 and 20 festivals per year, but Summegrass is unique,” said Dennis Caplinger, who is even more unique than the 15-year-old bluegrass festival at Vista’s tree-lined Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum.

So was Caplinger, who had switched from drums to banjo before he reached his teen years.

Caplinger enrolled at UC San Diego as a music major but left before graduating to become a full-time musician. His versatility and virtuosity were demonstrated by the breadth of his career, which saw him record with everyone from Clapton and country-music star Vince Gill to Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Chris Hillman and the now-defunct teen boy band One Direction.

A warm, friendly bear of a man, Caplinger recorded often in Los Angeles, where he had instruments stored and at the ready for his studio sessions. He was the featured instrumentalist on dozens of albums released as part of CMH Records’ “Pickin’ On” series.

He often performed on those albums as a one-man band, expertly creating, arranging and playing bluegrass versions of songs by Santana, Phish, Van Halen and more. His solo version of electric guitar legend Eddie Van Halen’s epic “Eruption” is a stunning example of Caplinger’s mastery of the banjo.

“There were so many times I would have Dennis come in and create a bluegrass record from scratch,” said award-winning San Diego musician and album producer Jeffrey Alan Berkley. “We would put down the bass and guitar parts, and he would add the rest, in one day. The whole record! Banjo, mandolin, dobro and fiddle.... He could’ve done the guitar and bass, too, but he wanted us to feel needed.”

Caplinger’s devotion to music and not letting fellow musicians down was so great that, even while hospitalized, he was on the phone with his collaborators.

“Here he was, struggling for his life, and he was concerned that he hadn’t recorded a fiddle part for someone’s album,” his son said. “He was a professional to the very end.”

Caplinger contributed music to a number of TV series, including “The Simpsons” and “Deadwood,” and to commercials for Subway Sandwiches, Home Depot and other companies. He also authored several books, including “Gospel Banjo,” “Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Banjo Basics” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bluegrass Mandolin Favorites.”

As members of Bluegrass Etc., Caplinger and Moore mentored and taught the then-pre-teen members of Nickel Creek, the San Diego trio that went on to win a Grammy in 2002. Bluegrass Etc. performed at nearly every edition of Vista’s 19-year-old Summergrass San Diego.

The group was scheduled to perform last Saturday at the 2021 edition of Summergrass in Vista. Caplinger’s death prompted Moore to turn his performance slot into a tribute to Caplinger.

In addition to his son, Caplinger is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, daughters Rachel and Melissa, and sisters Virginia Sullivan and Patty Chagnon.


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