Neal Casal first became serious about music while attending Morris Knolls High School in Rockaway in the ’80s. So it was fitting that this was the first school to benefit directly from the Neal Casal Music Foundation, which recently gave it a gift of guitars, amplifiers, a keyboard and other music equipment.
“That’s the ongoing mission that we want to do,” said Casal’s longtime friend and manager and the foundation’s executive director, Gary Waldman. “We want to try to expand it and continue with some of the kids who are getting instruments, and provide lessons for them. And just make it something in Neal’s honor that a lot of kids are getting their hands on instruments and learning how to play, and then learning how great that can be.”
Casal, the acclaimed guitarist (for groups such as Ryan Adams & the Cardinals and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood) and solo singer-songwriter, died by suicide in 2019 at the age of 50. Since then, Waldman and others who were close to him have undertaken a number of projects to honor him and raise awareness of his music.
About a month after he died, a tribute concert, “There’s a Reward: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Neal Casal to benefit MusiCares,” was held at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. It featured performances by Robinson, Citizen Cope, Steve Earle, Beachwood Sparks and Circles Around the Sun (two bands Casal had played in), organist John Ginty (a fellow Morris County native who worked with Casal on many projects over the years) and others.
A coffeetable book of Casal’s photographs, “Tomorrow’s Sky,” came out last year.
Casal’s final two recordings, including “Everything Is Moving” (see video below), were released posthumously last year. Waldman also has a lot of unreleased Casal music — including demos and concert recordings — and plans to put out an archival album next year.
And a three-CD (or 5-LP) tribute album, Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal, will be released, Waldman says, on a still-undetermined date, but probably later this summer or in the fall. It will feature covers by Earle, Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Billy Strings, Shooter Jennings, Leslie Mendelson, Todd Sheaffer and others.
Hearing so many artists sing Casal’s songs has been “great,” said Waldman.
“For all those years we were always like, ‘We’ve got to get somebody to cover Neal songs,’ and we never really had much luck,” he said. “I don’t know why. And now when I hear people interpreting his songs, I’m just like, ‘Yeah, we were right. That’s a great song.’ So that’s been a huge reward.”
Money that comes in from these projects, as well as donations made by those who loved Casal’s music, funds the foundation’s charitable endeavors. Some corporations have helped out, too. Fender Guitars, for instance, supplied the guitars to be donated to Morris Knolls High School.
Waldman also works with Citizen Cope, and remembers telling Casal about a project Cope had done where he earmarked a certain percentage of concert-ticket revenue to buy musical instruments for children on a Native American reservation in Minnesota.
“Neal was like, ‘Oh, that’s so amazing. That would be something great to do,’ ” Waldman said. “So after he died, I just stuffed in the back of my mind, ‘Hmm, I wonder if we can figure out a way to do this.’
“Obviously, Neal was never a household name. But over the last 20 years or so, he had a pretty dedicated fan base of people who loved his music and the bands that he played in — his guitar playing (for those bands). And so we just decided, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do. If we put this record out, can we raise a bunch of money?’ ”
Waldman feels this is just what Casal would have wanted him to be doing.
“The idea for raising money and creating a foundation initially was in Neal’s kind of ‘farewell letter.’ He’d asked me to do whatever I could to draw attention to how difficult the life of a traveling musician can be. It’s just a lifestyle that can knock you out. And it did with him after many years. He loved playing gigs, and he loved traveling. But the last four or five years of his life, it just got to be overwhelming to him. And I think he wanted other people to understand that there’s care you can get.
“So that’s why I was like, ‘If we raise money, there’s two things we could do as a foundation. One is to donate to organizations like MusiCares and Backline, which are dedicated mental health and healthcare systems for musicians’ … So over the last year and half, we’ve raised about $40,000 for MusiCares and Backline to help other musicians, and we’re going to continue working with them on that. Then the other part of the foundation’s mission was to provide instruments for kids who can’t get ’em.”
Waldman called the last year and a half’s series of projects “an amazing run.”
“I think Neal would be blown away and humbled by the fact that people have been so supportive of what we’ve been trying to do, and that all these people wanted to record his songs,” he said.
For more on the foundation and its projects, visit nealcasalmusicfoundation.org.
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