Preview: Highway Butterfly – The Songs of Neal Casal

23 July 2021 | Press Release/Website | Neil Casal Music Foundation

Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal is a tribute to the life and music of the gifted singer, songwriter, musician, and friend to many. Featuring 41 of Neal’s songs on 5 LPs or 3 CDs, the collection brings together a galaxy of rock and roots music luminaries to reimagine the body of work he left behind, while celebrating his enduring impact as an artist.

Within the limited edition vinyl and CD box sets are sleeves with rare and previously unpublished photos of Neal, a booklet presenting song lyrics, Neal’s own iconic photography and an essay by early career champion Jim Cardillo.

Additional collectibles include a poster and baseball card with photos of Neal by photographer Jay Blakesberg and stickers designed by poster artists Alan Forbes and Marq Spusta. Highway Butterfly was co-produced by Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools and 7-time Grammy-Winner Jim Scott.

Release date: November 12th, 2021

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Bio | About Neal Casal and the ‘Highway Butterfly’ Tribute Collection

Neal Casal wasn’t a household name—far from it. None of the 14 albums he released under his own name between 1995’s Fade Away Diamond Time and 2011’s Sweeten the Distance sold many copies, although they were beloved by those discerning listeners who’d discovered him, primarily by word of mouth.

He was best known as a member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals (2005-09) and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (2011-19), while also an in-demand session guitarist and singer. Concurrently, the prolific polymath made music with his friends in Hazy Malaze, the interconnected Beachwood Sparks and GospelbeacH, Circles Around the Sun, Hard Working Americans and Skiffle Players, among other bands—as he documented his travels with striking photographs—during a career spanning a quarter century.

Everyone who’d crossed paths with Casal was devastated to learn that he’d taken his own life in 2019—this gentle soul with his boyish smile, angelic voice and big heart, who’d touched our souls with his deeply empathetic music, tragically succumbing to despair. As he tried to process this incomprehensible loss, Gary Waldman, Neal’s close friend and longtime manager, became the guardian of his legacy.

He put the wheels in motion by organizing a tribute concert at one of Casal’s favorite venues, the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., which took place a month after his death. The benefit, featuring performances of Casal’s songs by a number of his artist friends, brought in more than $25,000, which was donated to MusiCares. That marked the first act of the newly formed Neal Casal Music Foundation, which has subsequently provided music instruments and lessons to students in New Jersey and New York state schools where Casal was born and raised.

Inspired by the quality and emotiveness of the performances at 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. A large portion of proceeds would be earmarked for MusiCares, Backline, and other mental health organizations for musicians.

Waldman initiated a Kickstarter campaign, and Casal’s loyal fans answered the call, donating a whopping $155,000. Private donations lifted the recording budget to the scale of an old-school major label project—exponentially bigger than anything Casal had ever had to spend on his own records. With that money, and with so many members of Casal’s extended musical family eager to participate, Waldman was able to realize his vision—and then some.

The project has blossomed into a five LP/three-CD box set, Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal, comprising 41 tracks. It was co-produced by Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools, Neal’s bandmate in Hard Working Americans, and his first producer and ongoing mentor, L.A. legend Jim Scott, who also engineered and mixed.

So why would dozens of musicians, high-profile and emerging both, jump at the chance to be part of a project dedicated to recording covers of Casal’s songs? Because this gifted gentle soul touched so many with his music and his humanity, and his impact on the roots, jam and indie worlds was profound and enduring. Casal somehow managed to bond a sprawling, interconnected community—connecting members of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers clan, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Widespread Panic and so many others—so much so that honoring his memory by interpreting one of his songs was a genuine labor of love for everyone involved.

Among the rock and roots luminaries appearing on Highway Butterfly are Susan Tedeschi  & Derek Trucks, Hiss Golden Messenger, Fruit Bats, Steve Earle & The Dukes, Jonathan Wilson, Vetiver, Shooter Jennings, Beachwood Sparks & GospelbeacH, Marcus King, J Mascis, Warren Haynes, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Cass McCombs, Johnathan Rice, Billy Strings, Oteil Burbridge & Duane Trucks, Norah Jones’ trio Puss N Boots and the Allman Betts Band. These and the other contributing artists were Casal’s friends and admirers—and the feeling was mutual.

“He loved sharing music and talking about musicians to other musicians,” Waldman notes. “It was something he did that was a glue in that whole community. It was a beautiful thing. And he left a beautiful legacy.”

Recording commenced in February 2020. The concept,” Schools explains, “was that we’d bring people to the place where Neal earned his skills from Jim Scott, which would be his studio, PLYRZ, in Valencia, Calif., get them all on that turf. Then we’d have sonic continuity.”

“When we were doing it, Jim, Dave and I couldn’t believe it was real,” says Waldman. “It was so easy in a way, too. The Billy Strings/Circles Around the Sun song, ‘All the Luck in the World,’ was the first one we did. And by like five o’clock that day, we were like, ‘This is great.’ The first batch of songs, we’d do a song in a day from beginning to end. So that first, pre-COVID run was just magical, because every day was special.”

One key to the project’s consistency was the familiarity of the three principals, who deftly blended their complementary skill sets. “Dave’s coherent, he’s open to collaboration, he’s a music lover and he looks at different things than I do, things that are really important,” Scott says of his co-producer. “He’s not picky: Good is good, a groove’s a groove, decisions are made, on we go. So having Gary and Dave to bounce things off of and to keep that bar high was great. They liked it when they liked it. And if there was something they wanted me to keep working on, they weren’t afraid to say so. Schools and I go pretty far back; I mixed a Widespread Panic record about 25 years ago. So the communication was good.”

As word spread about the ongoing sessions, “the wheels started rolling fast,” Schools recalls. “People were calling us up, friends of Neal’s, other artists who had only brushed up against him, and saying they wanted to be part of it. We had intended to have it be around 18 songs, a three-record set and one CD, and it just kept exploding. And what’s even more amazing is that COVID literally scuttled it halfway through the second of the three recording windows, but once people got over quarantine-lockdown shock, they started looking for ways they could do it.”

Following the pandemic-forced pause, recording resumed at far-flung locations across the country, with Scott unifying the completed tracks by “heating up” the mixes, as Schools puts it.

Among the numerous knockout interpretations are Tedeschi & Trucks’ quicksilver “Day in the Sun,” King’s preternaturally soulful “No One Above You,” Earle and the Dukes’ intricately embroidered title track, Hiss Golden Messenger’s astral “Time Down the Wind,” J Mascis’ raging “Death of a Dream,” Strings’ gilded “All the Luck in the World,” Jennings’ panoramic “Maybe California,” Vetiver’s yearning “White Fence Round House” and Haynes’ epic, Zuma-evoking “Free to Go.” Each reframing finds the existentially bittersweet eloquence at the core of the song—the interplay of light and darkness that was the defining element of Casal’s artistry.

Listening to this more than three hours of varied yet seamless music reveals how closely connected these musicians are with the spirit of this endeavor and the artist who inspired it.

“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. It’s really that good.”

—Bud Scoppa


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