Dave Schools had barely known Neal Casal for a minute before the two found themselves trading tones and CDs as members of Hard Working Americans. Along with Duane Trucks and Chad Staehly and at the behest of Todd Snider, the supergroup coalesced at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in 2013 to record their self-titled debut, and in the process, a soon to be familiar talent emerged. Neal Casal had many skills– songwriter, guitarist, photographer among them– but as I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about his life, an ability to emotionally and spiritually relate to people may have been his greatest gift. It’s an attribute that Schools appreciated from day one in his relationship with the late artist who passed away in 2019, and there’s no finer example supporting that notion of love and influence than Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal. Collecting 41 songs written by the New Jersey native, the set not only highlights his career, but also showcases a galaxy of like minds, friends, and admirers who seek to, as Schools so beautifully states, simply “keep him in the room” through his lyrics and melodies. With Highway Butterfly and other projects including an accompanying podcast series and book of photographs, the Neal Casal Music Foundation is preserving his legacy through education and mental health resources for musicians. Schools, a Georgia Music Hall of Famer best known as the bassist for Widespread Panic, served as a producer and performer on Highway Butterfly. Calling from the West Coast, Dave shares his thoughts on the tribute, what the foundation hopes to accomplish, and what may be on the horizon in perpetuating the memory of Neal Casal.
AI- The Highway Butterfly box set, massive set, 41 tracks… I’m looking at the lineup on it right now, and I’ve been listenin’ to it intermittently over about the last two and a half weeks. Man, puttin’ all that together had to have been a Herculean effort, but I want to start with you meeting Neal back in 2013 for that first Hard Working Americans album. Really, that was the first time you’d met him? You’d not had any other interactions up to that point?
DS- No! I’d only seen pictures of him on the wall at Bob Weir’s studio in San Rafael, at TRI. We convened, I hadn’t met anyone except for Duane [Trucks] and Todd Snider— and I hadn’t really seen Snider in years! We had just talked about the project. Neal shows up in his surfer camper van from Ventura and starts unloadin’ amps! And man, you know, once we started deconstructing those tunes, he was integral and he was fantastic! What a great session player! What a great person! It was just musical love at first sight (laughs)!
I spoke to Zephaniah OHora who worked with Neal on his last album [Listening to the Music], and my friend Charlie Farmer spoke to Brent Rademaker from Beachwood Sparks and GospeleacH. It’s amazing to me how those two could have different relationships with Neal, but yet they experienced the same thing. His ability to connect with people and connect people, to bring folks together, really comes through. Listening to you talk about Neal on your episode of the podcast for the foundation, you found the same thing to be true.
Absolutely! The term I use to describe Neal is “King Mixer”, and by that, I mean he wanted to mix people together. If he met somebody that he thought might enjoy someone else he knew, he would do everything in his power to get those two people together, whether it was over coffee– or tea as Neal would prefer– or in a studio or just to talk about music, to listen to records. He seemed to have a sixth sense about how people would get together and how they’d get along. I found it to be very true, and I gotta tell ya, Brent’s right, Zeph is right, and everyone would agree. I think that quality of his really carried through this whole Highway Butterfly project, because there were people, like Billy Strings, that he had met very briefly, probably never even really jammed with– unless it was some sort of sit-in at a festival real quick– and yet, they were already planning to make a record with Circles Around The Sun and Billy as a guest!
So when Billy signed onto the Highway Butterfly project, I put him with Circles Around The Sun because that’s one of the projects that Neal had spoken about. And I’m like, “Well, let this be the very first thing!” That was our big green flag! We cut that song, “All The Luck In The World”, in one day at Jim Scott’s studio. We knew right away that we were onto something and that quality of Neal was going to see us through. Every day it did. Even when COVID shut us down and we went to remote recording, that quality saw the project through. Neil had so many great qualities, obviously in the musical realm as a songwriter and an incredibly talented session player that just did exactly what the song called for and the sort of nascent, neo-psychedelic, tie-dyed guitar hero that he had become over the last few years. All of that stuff just came through. It was amazing!
You bring up that “tie-dyed guitar hero” aspect of his persona and of his music. That was something that Brent talked about, how so many people were aware of Neal from that realm of music versus knowing him as a solo artist. One of the great things about this box set is that those kinds of fans really do get to experience his music in a new and different way. Did you find that to be true for yourself?
Absolutely! Because what I discovered when I was talking to artists about potentially participating in this project was that, let’s say MC Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger, for example, was like, “I love Neal’s stuff. I bought his first two records in the mid-90s He was a big influence on my songwriting, but then he kinda fell off my radar once I moved east, and he started playing with Ryan Adams.” That’s one camp– the people who were aware of Neal, the Americana prototype singer-songwriter guy. And then myself, I fell into the second camp where I’m like, “Oh, this guy comes up here to the Bay area and jams with Phil and Bobby, and he’s playin’ with Chris Robinson and that’s like a psychedelic band, the Brotherhood.” Some of the stuff we did in Hard Working Americans was a “guitar hero” kind of thing that brings a songwriter’s approach to the way he participated in that group.
Those two worlds were very interesting to sort of parse while we put the record together. Everybody had a particular experience of Neal that tended to fall into one of those two camps. Obviously, the slant on the record is the songwriting aspect. But I couldn’t help myself but be jazzed when I asked Jimmy Herring to do “Bird With No Name” as an instrumental and let him quote the melody as a guitar hero, which I think is one of Neal’s most beautiful melodies and an amazing song. The first time I heard the version that’s on Sweeten The Distance, I literally texted him at like four in the morning, and I said, “Did you write this song?” It was just so good, I couldn’t believe that someone I knew could have written a song that great!
I wanted to showcase that aspect of Neal, and I feel like it’s something he never had much confidence in. I feel like he knew he was a really gifted songwriter, and I think the fact that he didn’t get a lot of big ink on it or a big success thing, I think that that bothered him. But he knew that he was a good songwriter. I think he was very, very self-confident about his guitar playing ability. He had his heroes from the heyday of rock n’ roll and, and then he’s playin’ alongside people like Stanley Jordan! He comes and sits in with Phil [Lesh] or Luther Dickinson or any one of these people! I felt it was important that the guitar heroes were represented on this, so you’ve got some Warren Haynes and you’ve got some Steve Kimock and you’ve got some Jimmy Herring, Marcus King. I think that would make Neal proud.
You’ve talked about how originally, and I believe it was Gary Waldman that launched the initial idea to do this tribute set, but you had a smaller core of artists that you knew should be a part of it. Once the word got out that this was goin’ on, you had people contacting you to do it. Who surprised you the most that they wanted to be a part of doing this box set?
What surprised me was just the overwhelming number of people! Because when Gary and I started to talk about it with Jim, we were thinkin’ maybe a triple record at the most, like a one CD kind of collection with maybe 18 songs. That might be a double record, might be a triple depending on how long the sides are. But we were just blown away! So many people signed on so quickly! Marcus King’s a great example. I connected with him and we were talkin’ about it and I told him my idea of how I wanted the backing band. Marcus was welcome to bring his band if he wanted it, but I said, “It would be really cool if we could have the backing band, the session guys, all be people who had played with Neal at some point.” And I said, “Even to the point of you could have Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood back you up– Adam MacDougall and Tony Leone and Jeff Hill. Or you could have Bob Glaub and Don Heffington and Greg Leisz back you up! Or you could have the Hard Working Americans rhythm section back you up!” And he was like, “Wait a minute, are you tellin’ me I could have almost any band I wanted backin’ me up?” And I said, “That’s the plan!”
It was pretty easy to get people involved and the results are just… They’re stunning! The fact that we were able to record a song a day before COVID shut us down, and then it wasn’t more than a couple of months before people got their sea legs and started feeling confident, like, “Hey, there’s a cool studio in my town and I can gather my favorite musicians and we can do this and then we can have Jim mix it.” I was just shocked! I couldn’t believe it! I think it really speaks to the volume of love that people had, not only for Neal as a person but also in the way his songs resonated with them as artists. Everybody brought their own interpretation to the table. Like Leslie Mendelson, “Feel No Pain”, just a beautiful production number, great version. You asked me about surprises? You should’ve seen the look on my ears when I heard J Mascis’s version of “Death Of A Dream”!
There’s lots of funny stories about it too. I’d had a particular song in mind for Weir because he likes sort of cowboy songs about girls and stuff. I fed him the song and he’s like, “Alright, well, I’ll woodshed it tonight!” And of course, it’s the night before the recording session! About midnight, I get a text from him that just says, “Wait a minute.” (Laughs) I’m like, “Oh, what does this mean?” I guess he had been listening to the CD, and he let the next song play after the one he was workin’ on, “Time and Trouble”. He’s like, “Could we maybe do this one?” I’m like, “We can do whatever you want if it resonates with you!” So he did what he does best! He interpreted the song in his own way, and it’s just amazing to me. It was a really happy surprise. I’m glad he let the CD play (laughs)!
The Neal Casal Music Foundation is a big part of this. One of the aspects of the foundation is music education in that part of the world where Neal grew up. I know that’s something very near and dear to your heart, the work you’ve done with Widespread Panic with Tunes For Tots. But another focus for the foundation will be providing support for mental health for musicians. That’s a beautiful thing, and I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about that, specifically, what resources are available. Or rather, who the foundation is working with?
The foundation is trying to support organizations like MusiCares, the GRAMMY association. In fact, some of the proceeds we made from the Capitol Theatre memorial service, as it were, for Neal, was given to MusiCares. We’re heavily involved with backline.care, which put up something really nice yesterday on giving Tuesday about how Backline was created in the wake of Neal’s suicide. I didn’t really know that there was that connection, but obviously, it makes sense. That was a rough year. We lost a lot of people that year. We wanna work with Nuci’s Space, we wanna work with Sweet Relief. We wanna be able to support and enable these outreach programs. We support them, and they support folks that might be out on the road, might feel a little distant, a little homesick, a little lost, a little way out on the outer orbit of things.
It can be lonely. So if there’s a resource these people can reach out to, that’s great. I think a by-product that I’ve noticed, because obviously I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about this album, and the people who we have lost over the last few years have affected so many of us that there is a real effort to de-stigmatize simply talking about suicide and mental health in ways that don’t normalize the act but normalize the feelings of people. Because if they feel like they can’t talk about it, they are just gonna ruminate on it, and it’s gonna fester. So to de-stigmatize just talking about the way you feel is a big deal, and it goes a long way. That’s what these resources like MusiCares, Backline, Nuci’s Space do. They provide a safe space to talk, and sometimes, that’s all you need. Sometimes you need heavier stuff, but talking’s great when you don’t feel like you’re bein’ gas lit.
Do you feel like the business itself, the act of having to tour and having to maintain that kind of schedule in order to have any sort of lifestyle of your own– is that directly contributing to these issues? I mean, you say “suicide”, and the air just comes out of the room. With Neal’s passing, as you have said before, it was such a shock to everyone. But you’re all musicians, you all travel, you all work, you all know what kind of wear and tear and grind that can be physically as well as mentally. Do you think this last two years with the pandemic is showing people that yes, there can be another way?
Well, the pandemic is showing us a lot of things. I think a lot of people have come to many realizations about themselves– maybe some of them not so good. I think as far as touring, it’s a rough lifestyle. But we knew it was a rattlesnake when we picked it up. I think it’s Ronnie Milsap that famously said, “You don’t pay me for the show, you pay me for the schlep.” The hours we get on stage is our joy. It’s what we live for. All the other stuff can really feel… It can break you. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us. I think the music industry itself, as a commodity and the way it places value on the amount of sales you have, an artist tends to equate that with their own artistic value.
There’s plenty of artists that never sold anything whose art is fantastic and should be experienced by more people. And of course, we know there’s plenty of crap that sells millions of copies! I think that’s a discussion that needs to be had. It’s certainly something that a lot of us suffer from, but really, I think the pandemic has brought people closer together in some ways, even though we’ve been isolated in a lot of ways. I know that it’s a catalyzing external pressure that if there’s something in there, sittin’ at home alone for a year is gonna make it come out sideways. That’s for darn sure.
You mentioned the way that people interpreted those songs, and I wondered if the way people chose to arrange or present Neal’s songs was also their way of processing and dealing with his death?
That is a very good question, and I can speak to that. Absolutely. It affected all of us. The greatest thing about working at PLYRZ, Jim Scott’s studio in Southern California, was that it became like a continual remembrance festival. So many of the people who were session players backing up all these wonderful artists were people who played with Neal– and some of them had a long history with Neal. And of course, Gary Waldman had managed and been friends with Neal since high school. Jim Scott had been working with Neal since the early ’90s and Neal was one of his favorite people to have on a session. And myself, with my own 7-year history with Neal, we were very, very close. We were studio rats together! We loved it!
When someone like Lauren Barth, who had known Neal for a long time, records, a song like “Lost Satellite”, and Jim and Gary and I are sitting in the control room and she sings lines from the song that are so on the nose, including the line, “Give me enough rope to hang myself by,” man, it was tough! But at the same time, we were surrounded in that space, that sacred recording space, with people that loved Neal and knew him. So yeah, there were those chilling moments that were almost impossible to take, but she refracted it beautifully through her own music. And then we’d break and we’d go out in the big room and we’d just talk about Neal.
Grief? Everybody deals with it differently. We all process things differently. But being together and being able to play his music and experience him in that way? He was still in the room and it helped. That’s the whole thing. This is the remarkable thing about this record was that it’s for his legacy and it’s also for us. We are missing our friend and this way, we can keep him in the room with us the best we can when we play his music. When we listen to his music, we hear his words, and that rules.
Zeph OHora told me that the original plan had been to have everybody involved come out to the studio and work. You just talked about how the dream had been to be able to build your own band to do this. You were able to do some of that before COVID shut everything down– but what about the future? Do you see something formal happening in the future involving everyone or as many people on the Highway Butterfly set as possible? Perhaps a live show or a Highway Butterfly Festival, something annual to benefit the foundation? Is that something in the works or being flirted with?
That is certainly being talked about. We have team meetings every week and of course now that the record has mostly dropped– everything but the vinyl portion– we’re looking to the future and how we can expand the foundation and expand the legacy. Obviously, music is our main language. Neal spoke better with music than he did in any other way. The idea of having concerts or benefits certainly has been floated. It’s difficult as we try to get out of COVID to plan things, but it’s been very easy to do remote things and little ZOOM things, and we’ve got some stuff in the works. So I would definitely pay attention to the foundation website!