“You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence”, John Green wrote in The Fault In Our Stars. The saddest thing about losing someone isn’t just the memories of the past you had together, it’s imagining a future that’s no longer possible without them; it’s wondering what you could have been doing every time the sun comes out or the way they would have laughed at something silly on television.
Whenever an artist, poet or songwriter leaves us, we don’t just miss them as people – a lot of us would never have been lucky enough to know them personally - but what we miss is the way they saw the world; the way they were able to shine a light into its darkest corners and help us to see it through their eyes.
In the nearly three years since Neal Casal passed away, the world has been turned on its head in so many unexpected ways, and one of the saddest things about him no longer being here is not being able to share what his beautiful and unique way of seeing the world would have made of it all.
Neal was perhaps best known as a member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, as well as being an in-demand session guitarist and singer - playing on records by Willie Nelson, Shooter Jennings, Lucinda Williams, Amanda Shires, The Jayhawks, Tift Merritt and Jaime Wyatt.
He made music with friends in Circles Around the Sun, Hard Working Americans and Beachwood Sparks and released 14 albums of his own since his debut, Fade Away Diamond Time, in 1995, most of them frustratingly underrated and sadly overlooked, except for by an enthusiastic and passionate legions of fans and friends.
“Neal was a gentle, introspective, deeply soulful human being who lived his life through artistry and kindness,” the announcement of his death on his Facebook page read. As the tributes poured in, everyone who’d ever crossed paths with Neal spoke about how devastated they were to learn that he’d taken his own life. They'd mention his gentle soul and his big heart, and how he’d touched them all so deeply with his deeply empathetic music, before tragically succumbing to the darkness that often imbued it.
“Through thick and thin your heart was a lighthouse of kindness. Your eyes a mirror to a better world”, Ryan Adams wrote. “We will miss him dearly”, wrote Brent Rademaker, his bandmate in GospelbeacH and Beachwood Sparks. “We are lucky in this difficult time that we’ve got a big family to turn to for support, and that is because Neal Casal brought us all together”.
As he tried to process this incomprehensible loss, one particular member of that family, Gary Waldman - Neal’s close friend and longtime manager - became the guardian of his legacy. He organised a tribute concert at one of Neal’s favourite venues, The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY, which took place a month after his death. The benefit show brought in more than $25,000 for MusiCares and led to the formation of the Neal Casal Music Foundation, which provides musical instruments and lessons to students in New Jersey and New York state schools.
Inspired by the success of the Capitol concert, Waldman began drawing up the blueprint for an ambitious recording project intended to celebrate Casal’s life and music, one that would ideally bring him the recognition that had criminally evaded him during his life, and began inviting musicians and friends of Neal’s to be involved. A large portion of proceeds would be earmarked for MusiCares, Backline and other mental health organisations for musicians.
As ambitious as it was to begin with, nobody involved could have predicted just how expansive it would become, as its original 18 tracks swelled to 41; over three hours of Neal’s music reimagined by the artists who loved him and admired him most, now released as a five-LP/three-CD box set, Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal.
With contributions from Hiss Golden Messenger, Fruit Bats, Steve Earle & The Dukes, Jonathan Wilson, Jaime Wyatt, Shooter Jennings, Beachwood Sparks & GospelbeacH, Marcus King, Warren Haynes, Dori Freeman, Bob Weir, Cass McCombs, Johnathan Rice, Billy Strings and many many more, it’s a enduring testament to the reach of Neal Casal’s friendship and talent.
“For years we were always trying to get people to cover his songs, and we just never had much luck,” Waldman acknowledges. “But the songs are so good - why aren’t they being interpreted by other artists? And now you hear this record, and it really works. I’m thrilled with it; I think it’s beautiful, and it’s a great testament to how many cool songs he wrote”.
“I really wish I could drive around and listen to this record with Neal, because he would just be shocked by it,” he muses. “I think it would blow his mind, because he never would have imagined it”.
Jaime Wyatt contributes ‘Need Shelter’ to the album, a joyously fearless anthem for outsiders everywhere. “I don’t need to hide, but I do need shelter”, she sings in the video, burning her overdue bills and dancing around her living room to Fade Away Diamond Time, as a tarot reading mysteriously leads her to a rollerskating rink.
The video for ‘Need Shelter’ is premiering exclusively on Holler below.
Jaime spoke to Holler about her friendship with Neal Casal, working together with him on Neon Cross and why she chose to record ‘Need Shelter’ for the new tribute album.
Where did you first meet Neal?
I met Neal years back in Ventura, CA, though I'd been a fan since his work with Ryan Adam and the Cardinals”, she remembers. “When I saw him playing and figured out he was the incredible songbird singing harmonies and playing such tasteful guitar, I made it a point to keep tabs on him! Anyhow, we met in Ventura and he mentioned he'd like to write one day, but I was too chicken to follow through and write a song with him. He was Neal Casal.
You worked with him on Neon Cross - how did that come about?
Years later, Shooter Jennings called me a few weeks before our recording session for the album and asked if I'd be down to have Neal play on my album. I said yes, but would he be interested? Can we afford him?! The answers were yes, and he turned up at the session early and so well prepared. We were both intensely nervous our first day tracking, but broke the ice after the session talking for hours into the LA night about the woes of the music business, songwriting and our favorite writers.
He was clearly an empath and his energy and encouragement helped me deliver and communicate what I needed for the album. His work exceeded every expectation I had on lead guitar.
He was really more like a painter with his guitar, lifting up my voice and texturizing the music. More importantly, through recording, we really bonded and I was so stoked to gain a new friend. The news of his passing was debilitating for me. It was just heartbreaking. He was a very special human and I feel blessed to have met him and shared music with him.
Why did you choose to cover ‘Need Shelter’?
I chose to sing ‘Need Shelter’ for the Highway Butterfly tribute album to his legacy as I think that song might have expressed the ache and confusion he may have felt. It certainly spoke to a part of me which felt misunderstood in this world. The lyrics feel universal and true for so many people.
Tell us about the idea behind the video?
For the video, the directors and I tried to insert Neal's spirit wherever possible and filming in California felt important to me, so I found some homies to shoot in Santa Rosa, CA. We were so stoked to have a cameo by Neal's dear friend, Dave Schools. At the same time we put together a treatment which included mysticism and human connection as well as some corky humor throughout. I only hope Neal would be proud of the recording and video.
Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal is out now on Royal Potato Records. Find out more about the Neal Casal Music Foundation here.