Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal
Following his suicide in 2019, his friend and manager, Gary Waldman, decided to set up a charitable foundation and make this covers album as a tribute and revenue earner. Casal was the musician’s musician. Respected and well liked but despite 14 albums, either solo or part of a band, he’s better known as a guitar sidesman latterly for Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson. He was never a household name.
Waldman wanted to create a lasting legacy and raise money to place musical instruments in schools as well as provide funds for mental health charities for musicians. At the start he thought they might get some major artists to chip in with the music if he could raise enough money to record it. To his surprise on Kickstarter he raised over $150k and found many artists coming forward. Eventually they had 41 songs (three CDs or 5 LPs) by the likes of Steve Earle, Hiss the Golden Messenger, Susan Tedeschi, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Shooter Jennings, Billy Strings and Warren Haynes.
It’s a large body of music: tuneful, easy rolling electric americana rock that curls around you like smoke such is the enveloping siren nature of these compositions. I never realised how many sumptuous melodies he’d penned. His gentle tenor and tasteful guitar passages provide a template that these songs generally follow.
Highlights for me include Britton Buchanan, The Fruit Bats, Marcus King or Billy Strings. Strings brings acoustic magic to “All the Luck In the World”. His yearning vocal and a bigger arrangement centred around a shimmering, tinkling piano adds to the drama before he takes off on an elegant acoustic guitar solo. “Pray Me Home” is converted into a piano instrumental by Jason Crosby. The bright melody comes to the fore and seems like a welcome reflective ‘time out’ in this long work. Robbie Robb’s version of “I Will Weep No More” closes the album and includes passages of Casal talking about his early career. This adds chills to the brooding soundtrack of background wailing guitars and thunderous rhythm.
Given the tragedy his lyrics take on more importance. They’re very personal and in the main about relationships often dealing with his shortcomings, the aftermath and inevitable forks in the road.
This is a beautiful collection and a very easy listen. The use of one production team makes the whole work fluent and consistent. The quality of the songs speak for themselves. It’s depressing that Casal didn’t get the recognition he deserved by a wider audience. Slightly contrite at my ignorance of his catalogue I’ve been dipping into the originals and they’re superb. Over and above the devastation of a life taken so young you can’t help but reflect on what a loss he was musically.