When Neal Casal committed suicide on August 26th, 2019, he had long existed as a cult figure. He was a musician’s musician. His face wasn’t on billboards or at the top of lineups. Instead, his presence lurked in the corner of the studio or buried in personnel credits.
In the wake of his death, Neal’s unassuming, largely untapped star power was pushed to the forefront. In addition to serving as a catalyst for the posthumously created Neal Casal Music Foundation, his death has inspired a newfound appreciation for this late renaissance man. Among the people leading that renewed interest is bassist Dave Schools—though for him, the infatuation with Neal Casal is hardly fresh.
Schools first met Casal in 2014 during the recording sessions for Hard Working Americans, the eponymous debut record from the supergroup featuring Schools, his Widespread Panic bandmate Duane Trucks, troubadour Todd Snider, keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), and Neal (Jesse Aycock was added after Neal’s extensive overdubbing made clear the need for another guitarist). As the bassist said during a recent interview with Live For Live Music, Schools and Casal formed a bond as “studio rat brothers,” instantly establishing a relationship based on the communal plain of production. Fast forward seven years and Schools, alongside Neal’s mentor Jim Scott, is gearing up to release what he calls a “five LP-headstone” for Neal: Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal.
“[Highway Butterfly] began as a way for those of us who were really close to Neal and folks who had known him for much longer than I have—like Gary Waldman, his longtime friend and manager, and Jim Scott, one of his studio mentors—for us to sort of pick up the pieces and sort of deal with our grief in one of the ways we know best, which is putting music out,” Schools said.
The plan began with the intention of recording 18 songs, putting them out, and using that as a launchpad to create the Neal Casal Music Foundation. Nearly two years, 41 tracks, 130-plus artists, and a pandemic later, Highway Butterfly has become its own cultural movement.
“So it was our notion to maybe record about 18 of these and make a tribute record that could benefit not only the artists who were interpreting Neal’s songs, but also folks who loved Neal, as well as folks who maybe had a better understanding of what he was going through before he killed himself,” Schools said. “And by that I mean the general public and other musicians that may experience some of these feelings of depression, feelings of outsiderness, and hopefully use this record as a springboard to create a foundation that could provide some resources and relief for folks who have to deal with depression. Especially folks out on the road and the people that enable the artists that are out on the road. We’re all out on the road.”
One of the first contributing artists to lend his talents to the project was Billy Strings. The bluegrass picker, who has been transparent in his own struggles with mental health, had been with Schools earlier in the day before he got the call about Neal’s death. In fact, the two had discussed mental health in Nashville hours before the call came through in August 2019. It was fitting, then, that Strings’ cover of the Rain, Wind and Speed cut “All The Luck In The World” with the Neal-founded Circles Around The Sun eventually helped herald the announcement of Highway Butterfly.
“Billy signed on and that gave us an initial thumbs up, and of course any of the artists that knew or worked with Neal were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll help in any way we can.’ So we began to put this concept together,” Schools recalled.
By the time “All The Luck In The World” dropped in June 2020, Highway Butterfly was already a massive undertaking. While the album’s personnel represents a range more diverse than most music festivals—from J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) to Bob Weir to Shooter Jennings and beyond—everyone was united thematically by an appreciation for Neal’s vast catalog of music, totaling 14 solo albums released between 1995 and 2011. The artists were then to be united sonically via Jim Scott’s recording studio in Santa Clarita, CA, achieving what Schools called a “sonic continuity.”
“You get a lot of these tribute records and you begin to notice that it’s quite a job for the mastering engineer because artist A recorded his track in his bedroom, and artist B happened to be in the studio with his band in L.A. that day. It’s very much scattershot,” Schools said, “and I wanted to eliminate that by bringing everybody to the place where Neal cut his teeth, which is under the tutelage of Jim Scott. And we could provide the artists [with that space], all people who worked with Neal, whether it was his backup band from Fade Away Diamond Time which, you know, can be seen on the road with Jackson Browne [laughs] or the guys from Circles Around the Sun as a backup band as is the case with the Billy Strings song ‘All the Luck in the World.'”
The plan was going well—until the world shut down in mid-March 2020. Schools and Scott had recorded 15 tracks by that point, leaving another 26 on the board. Like every other musician during the pandemic, everyone on Highway Butterfly rolled with the changes to keep that sonic continuity. It didn’t hurt that someone like Warren Haynes could go into his home studio and cut a track with Joe Russo, Danny Lewis, and John Ginty. That track was then sent to Jim Scott to mix back in Santa Clarita.
“I mean, even though we did get a wide variety of sources from people, we still sent it back to Jim Scott and he heated it up in his own way,” Schools said of his co-producer. “He’s an absolutely amazing, multi-Grammy-winning recording engineer. You can look up his resume if you wanna, see cause I’ll guarantee you’ve got records he did in your personal collection.”
Beyond the mechanical aspects of producing the audio in the same studio existed a deeper theme of sonic continuity. Though many of these artists brought different styles to the table—from indie folk-rock to jam band, all the way to experimental—they all represented another stylistic facet of Neal’s legacy. While the record’s placment of an avant-jazz version of a Neal song from The Mattson 2 right before a cover by the trio of Bob Weir, Schools, and Jay Lane may seem jarring, Schools contends, “they belong on the same record. They’re both Neal’s songs and they’re both done with love for the guy. And that’s, to me, that is the main sonic thread.”
“It ran the gamut. There are people like MC Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger), and when I spoke to him about participating, he [had] heard those first singer-songwriter records Neal did,” Schools observed. “He said that Fade Away Diamond Time and No Wish to Reminisce were big influences on his songwriting. He honestly said that he had lost track of Neal when he began serving other musicians, joining [Ryan Adams’ backing band] the Cardinals and playing with Hard Working Americans. He was unaware of this latter-day, psychedelic guitar hero guy version of Neal, whereas other artists like Billy Strings, that’s the Neal they saw first, at a festival.”
Given its roster of musicians alone, Highway Butterfly could stand as one of the most prolific tribute albums of the modern era. Instead, the project went beyond being a “super-jam” and evolved into a consortium of touring musicians contributing to the ongoing discussion of mental health in the modern age.
“A lot of times, people will feel these things if they’re out on the road and they feel alone and depressed, and they’re not getting anywhere, or nobody’s hearing them,” Schools said. “You name it, a depressed person is going to take that shit and put it in his basket and ruminate upon it, and dwell on it. They won’t necessarily want to share, because people will think, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ Or, ‘You just want attention.’ There’s a million different ways that it’s been stigmatized, but there seems to be more openness and more willing ears out there, to listen non-judgmentally, and that’s what folks need to hear.”
The tragedy of Neal’s suicide acted as a sociological battering ram to tear down one of the final walls surrounding the stigmatization of mental health in the live music industry. Organizations like Backline (launched, in part, with Neal’s death in mind), Nuçi’s Space, MusiCares, and the Neal Casal Music Foundation are all a part of the message: it’s okay—even necessary—to ask for help.
“They need to know that these resources are available,” Schools said, “so that when they’re in trouble, in their head out there on the road, and it does… it feels like you’re floating in a dark sea, or that you’re orbiting way out on the edge of the known universe, just tapping on the window, looking in… and it can be the most difficult thing to reach out from that feeling and seek some help.”
But beyond the availability of these resources is the availability of the musicians themselves. One of the major benefits of bringing as many musicians as possible to Santa Clarita was that Scott’s studio became something of a support group for the bereaved. Out of that, a network of survivors of the same traumas emerged.
“If Billy Strings were to give me a call at 4 a.m. and just want to talk, I take it, because I know what it’s like. I’ve been there,” Schools said. “I’ve been on the road for 35 years. When Warren [Haynes] and I talked for the [Highway Butterfly] podcast, we talked about that. We were talking about this stuff 20 years ago when I was riding on the Gov’t Mule bus, that Allen Woody had just passed away or Mike Houser was fighting cancer. Then, he has passed away. We have to keep moving on. We have to keep doing what it is we do, which in my case is making music. It’s unfortunate that Neal has removed himself from making music for us. This is the thing we want to let people know, that there are resources and help out there.”
Something that we continue to witness in the 21st century is the impact of an artist’s actions on his legacy. With Neal, the way in which he left this world paints his music with a heavier brush. At the same time, a close listen through his lyrics illuminates guideposts to his mental state that were sometimes not so hidden beneath the surface. Warren Haynes offers a rendition of “Free To Go” that inspires numerous interpretations.
“‘You are free to go’ is what Neal sings, but once Warren gets a hold of it and he sings, ‘You are free to go,’ he might be singing to Neal, and in fact, there may have been role reversal, as Warren noted,” Schools observed. “Whereas Neal’s using poetic license, maybe singing to himself, we don’t know these things, and it doesn’t really matter. In fact, maybe it’s better that the listener doesn’t [know], because a great song can be interpreted a million different ways, but the most important interpretation is the one that you, as a listener, can take in and use for your own. That’s important, and that’s a mark of a great song.”
This brings us to the innermost layer of the musical onion that is Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal: Neal himself. The album consists of over 130 artists molding themselves to the late musician’s songwriting, making their own statement with someone else’s words, trying to sound like themselves while saying someone else’s lines. To Neal, believability was everything. Most of the time, he hoped to believe himself.
“Neal always said something when he was doing overdub guitar solos,” Schools recalled. “Each one would be unique and he’d pile up about five, and then we’d sort of go back into the control room and we’d listen to each of them. When he found the one he liked, he said, ‘I believe that guy,’ as if each guitar solo he recorded was a different person, in his mind. He chose the one where he felt he believed that guy who was performing the solo.”
“That’s always struck me as something about Neal,” Schools continued. “He wanted to be the guy who was believable. He wanted to be the guy that was inside the intent of the song, and did that. Intent is such a big word. It’s so important to me as a producer … the intent with which every single one of these artists came in to do their thing.”
In the end, Highway Butterfly is a 5-LP homage for a man who will never hear it. “Intent” is such an essential concept, as Schools knows well, so what is the intent of Highway Butterfly? Who is it for?
“It’s for Neal, really. That’s the easy answer from me, as far as I can tell,” Schools offered. “It’s for people who loved Neal. It’s for people who are bound to discover Neal sooner or later. It’s for people who really miss Neal. It’s for people that… who knows? It’s for people that stumble upon these great songs and are like, ‘Whoa, let me dig a little deeper in Neal’s catalog, because here’s 41 other artists interpreting these songs, but here’s 15 other records. Let me find a song, oh, this song really resonates with me. I’m going to add this to my repertoire as a guy at open mic night.’ Who knows where this is going to take some other person on a journey, but it’s there for them.”
Various Artists – Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal