Over the course of a performance career spanning more than 50 years, singer/songwriter Mary McCaslin has participated in countless benefit concerts and appearances to lend a hand to organizations and individuals alike in need. It’s a small measure of karma that those good works are coming back to her now.
McCaslin is now the subject of a Santa Cruz-based GoFundMe campaign to help her as she struggles against a diagnosis of progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurodegenerative brain condition similar to Parkinson’s disease. The campaign was launched May 23, and has raised more than $10,000.
McCaslin, 73, achieved national prominence in the “western” part of the 1970s country-western music scene, but locals know her as a larger-than-life presence on the Santa Cruz folk scene for a quarter century. She and her husband Greg Arrufat now live in the Southern California town of Hemet.
Her longtime friend and collaborator Santa Cruz singer/songwriter Ginny Mitchell visited McCaslin in early March, on her way back from a trip to Arizona. Mitchell had known that McCaslin was ailing, but was astonished to find how advanced her condition had become. She had trouble walking, finds it difficult to speak, is confined to a wheelchair and is no longer able to play or sing.
Once she returned to Santa Cruz, Mitchell put together the fund-raising campaign to purchase a wheelchair lift, a new recliner, more respite care, and other aids to allow McCaslin to live in comfort.
“They’ve never asked for help,” says Mitchell, “and they were there when the (GoFundMe) donations starting coming in. Mary was so happy. She just kept saying, ‘Look at my friends!’”
McCaslin became well-known in the late 1960s, both as a solo act and in a duo with Jim Ringer, a rough-hewn, hard-living folksinger. The duo became most famous for their ballad “The Bramble and the Rose.”
She is known both for a crystalline voice that evoked wide-open Western landscapes and as a pioneer for alternative guitar tunings in her songs. Her discography includes Way Out West (1974), Old Friends (1977) and Sunny California (1979) among others.
“She wrote about California a lot,” says musician and radio host Rachel Goodman. “There was the ‘San Bernardino Waltz’ and ‘Back to Salinas’ and talking about walking along the streets of L.A., feeling disillusioned about coming out West.”
Goodman remembers being a radio host in Kentucky in the 1980s and receiving a request from a man from Australia. “He said, ‘Send me a tape of anything by Mary McCaslin,’ so I sent him ‘Prairie in the Sky’ on a cassette tape. Turns out he was blind and dying of cancer, and he sent back [a message on cassette tape], ‘I just want to thank you so much, because listening to ‘Prairie in the Sky’ helps me fall asleep at night and takes me to another better place.’ I told Mary, ‘You don’t know how much your songs have helped and healed people all over the world.’”
Ginny Mitchell teamed up with McCaslin and country star Lacy J. Dalton for a high-profile musical project in the early 2000s called the Girls From Santa Cruz, which eventually was broadcast on PBS.
Mitchell and Goodman are among the musicians who have performed weekly on Facebook Live to benefit McCaslin, calling the concerts “Music for Mary Mondays.”
Goodman says that McCaslin and Arrufat have also been victimized by Santa Cruz’s escalating housing crisis. “They moved away from their support system because it was cheaper to live there. But it became more difficult to get help, because they’re so far away from people who would otherwise be chipping in to help.
“She did so many benefits for other people,” Goodman says. “She always raised her hand when someone was in dire straits to do a benefit concert. She was always quick to sign up.”
For more information on the GoFundMe campaign to help Mary McCaslin, go to gofundme.com/f/support-mary-and-gregg.