41 slices of life: ‘Highway Butterfly’ TheSongs of Neal Casal

Forty one artists and bands are heard on “Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal.”
Neal Casal portrait by Kevin Wells

The impressive number of big leaguers among the 41 artists and bands that contributed songs to “Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal” proves how highly regarded and influential Casal remains.

Neal Casal began his career not as the prolific singer-songwriter and band leader that he would become, but as a guitar player, first joining southern-rockers Blackfoot in 1988 at 20 years old. Casal made significant contributions to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and the alt. Americana-rock “super-group,” Hard Working Americans during his 30-year career, as well. He was even a professional photographer. But Casal’s innate, fascinating, and highly relatable ways with a word are what really sets him apart. And that’s the focus of this extraordinary collection.  

Evidently, Neal Casal lived with a gnawing, perplexing mindset, which he hid, even from those closest to him. The shock of his leaving this world two years ago at age 50 becomes amplified in listening to his songs, and discovering all he’d revealed about himself through them. So, this is certainly a tribute to a special musical artist whose songs can be adapted to styles of music as striking as the shades of a butterfly’s wings. But it just as much serves to spotlight the often-conflicting light and dark of human emotion.

For instance, Casal’s thoughts of profound uneasiness wrapped around tentative romantic promise seem offhanded as conveyed by Jamie Wyatt in her breezy, Okie-flavored take on “Need Shelter.” But they’re far from it. In “You Don’t See Me Crying,” Casal compared his own sadness and doubt to that of others, singing “It can’t be that bad for you, if I don’t see you crying.” Here, GospelbeacH (an offshoot of Beachwood Sparks) provides an elegant, Beatles-inflected, kaleidoscopic backdrop for the notion, which only deepens the impact. And so it goes, all the way through.

Rising star Marcus King, partnered ideally with Lettuce/Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno, envelops “No One Above You” in unadulterated soul. King proves he’s much more than just a virtuoso guitarist, singing Casal’s lyrics of cautious adulation in a voice full of subtle range and tone similar to that of the great Jackie Wilson. Given Casal’s skills as a guitarist, several other top-flight players make appearances. Billy Strings matches the distrust outlined in “All the Luck in the World” with brooding, psychedelic folk. Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi provide one of the album’s huge highlights by their tender reading of “Day in the Sun.” Trucks’ singular, dexterous guitar plucking and Tedeschi’s stunning voice both embody the song’s message of encouragement and hope. 

Casal was considered Grateful Dead “Family.” Guitar stylists Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic tap into that, and their own relationships with the Dead, in their remarkable contributions. Haynes paints a mind-expansive landscape for “Free to Go,” Casal’s song of ultimate release, but he and his cohorts trot like Crazy Horse through it. Herring, with Casal’s own Dead-inflected band Circles Around the Sun, takes a more enchanted, jazz-fusion-y route (similar to that of his Jazz Is Dead band in the late ‘90s) for “Bird with No Name.” Phil Lesh and Bob Weir also pay wonderful tribute to their friend, as does current Dead & Company bass player, Oteil Burbridge. Lesh and his Terrapin Family Band, of particular note, summon the sound of San Francisco circa 1966 for their dreamy, drifting ride through “Freeway to the Canyon.”

Other major impressions are made by singer Leslie Mendelson by her grand, piano-led take on “Feel No Pain,” Britton Buchanan by his driving, guitar-fired rock in “Willow Jane,” and by the baritone reading Jonathan Rice affords “Me and Queen Sylvia,” amid a carefree, country-folk traipse. But this journey through Neal Casal’s songs makes many such impressions, and is rife with across-the-board, wide-raging appeal. Spin these 41 slices of life any way you like, in order from start to finish, or on shuffle. You won’t take it off.

-Tom Clarke

  • ‘Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal’
  • Various Artists
  • Label: Royal Potato Family
  • Release: Nov. 12, 2021

1. Traveling After Dark – Aaron Lee Tasjan
2. Need Shelter – Jaime Wyatt
3. You Don’t See Me Crying – Beachwood Sparks w/ GospelbeacH
4. No One Above You – Marcus King w/ Eric Krasno
5. Feathers For Bakersfield – Fruit Bats
6. All The Luck In the World – Billy Strings w/ Circles Around The Sun
7. Sweeten The Distance – Dori Freeman w/ Teddy Thompson
8. Time Down The Wind – Hiss Golden Messenger
9. Me & Queen Sylvia – Johnathan Rice
10. Wisest Of The Wise – Mapache
11. Freeway To The Canyon – Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band
12. Feel No Pain – Leslie Mendelson
13. Detroit Or Buffalo – Jonathan Wilson w/ Hannah Cohen
14. Day In The Sun – Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks
15. Bird With No Name – Jimmy Herring w/ Circles Around The Sun
16. Maybe California – Shooter Jennings
17. White Fence Round House – Vetiver
18. December – Todd Sheaffer
19. Grand Island – Courtney Jaye
20. Superhighway – Oteil Burbridge, Nick Johnson, Steve Kimock, John Morgan Kimock & Duane Trucks
21. Willow Jane – Britton Buchanan
22. Too Much To Ask – Kenny Roby w/ Amy Helm
23. Time And Trouble – Bob Weir w/ Jay Lane & Dave Schools
24. Death Of A Dream – J Mascis
25. The Cold and The Darkness – Tim Heidecker
26. Free To Go – Warren Haynes
27. So Far Astray – Rachel Dean
28. Highway Butterfly – Steve Earle & The Dukes
29. Angel And You’re Mine – Victoria Reed
30. Pray Me Home – Jason Crosby
31. Lost Satellite – Lauren Barth
32. The Losing End Again – Jesse Aycock
33. These Days With You – Puss N Boots
34. Cold Waves – Tim Bluhm, Kyle Field
35. Best To Bonnie – Zephaniah Ohora w/ Hazeldine
36. Let It All Begin – The Mattson 2
37. You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone – Cass McCombs, Ross James, Joe Russo, Farmer Dave Scher & Dave Schools
38. Fell On Hard Times – Angie McKenna
39. Raining Straight Down – The Allman Betts Band
40. Soul Gets Lost – Hazy Malaze w/ Jena Kraus
41. I Will Weep No More – Robbi Robb

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 25 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, Los Lobos, and the Allman Brothers Band and its ever-growing family tree. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Kudzoo, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen have raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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