Home > Uncategorized > Neal Casal – “I wish the world was as gentle as he was..”

Neal Casal – “I wish the world was as gentle as he was..”

My doubts had doubts. I didn’t know what I was doing. All I know is that there was, finally, something about this batch of songs that kept me awake at night, thinking that things were possible. It was 1998.

I was working with George Graham at WVIA. George had a suggestion.

“I think we should ask Neal….I hear him on these..”

Neal Casal.

George has worked with Neal on a previous session. He thought our styles would mesh.

I didn’t know what to say….I think I stammered something like….”um…er….well….I mean….do you think he would do it, because I doubt he’ll…you know….?”

I had Neal’s records. We played a show together when he passed through the area. I was a huge fan. Just listening to “Fade Away Diamond Time” and “Rain Wind and Speed” made me a better songwriter…because I discreetly stole from both of them. He was so understated, so quietly inventive. He did everything well. Gorgeous singer, writer of great melodies (“Bird in Hand” still makes me cry), wonderful lyricist. As a guitarist he served the song better than anybody I’d ever heard. He had a pitch-perfect ear. And he was as gentle as the sunrise.

George said “let’s ask him”, and he did and Neal not only said yes, he suggested bringing his friend John Ginty with him. John had played keys on all of Neal’s records up to that point. And so there it was. It wasn’t just that I was intimidated, It was that I nearly shit myself. That’s the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

casal16

Neal during the “Song About a Train” sessions

I had no idea how to make a record. None. It was suggested that Neal and John were so good that we’d only need a day to rehearse the songs….they’d come up on a Friday night, and we could record on Saturday and Sunday. My girls weren’t born yet, so Neal got Kiera’s future room….and John got Alyssa’s. We played for a few hours and I spent the entire time grinning like an idiot. If anybody needed to rehearse it was me. By the end of the night Neal and John knew the songs better than I did.

They were fully engaged. We tweaked and cut and added and worked on arrangements. What struck me was how into this Neal was. He wasn’t just connecting the dots I had laid out. He was saying “let’s try this…..let’s try that…what do you think about this?…” He was softly pre-producing the record, ultimately…something I didn’t realize at the time because I had no idea what a producer was or what one did. And he was forcing me to believe in myself, because it was clear he believed in the songs. If they were good enough for him….well that was good enough for me.

So I didn’t shit myself, although I never got over feeling just a wee bit intimidated. This was the kind of talent I was unfamiliar with. Right out of the box, you get to work with Neal Casal? I didn’t know what normal was, but I knew this wasn’t it. But I savored every last drop.

Neal woke up the next morning, and being the perfect gentleman, thanked my wife for her hospitality. He remarked how he slept hard to the sound of the river that rolled along across the street, and off to the studio we went to make “Song About a Train“. In two sessions it was done. I played his Martin acoustic on just about every track. He was right there the entire time….adding harmony, gorgeous fills on the guitar, impeccable slide playing…..and taking some co-lead vocals. And always, without fail, encouraging me. Pushing me forward. When the energy flagged, he brought it back. When I started to see frogs on the wall trying to cut the final track, it was Neal who brought me outside for some air and talked me off the ledge. It’s his record as much as it’s mine.

I think I’ve made better records since, but I never made one that meant more. It convinced me that I could do this. And I can honestly say that if I hadn’t made this one….with Neal and John, things would have turned out a lot differently for me. And not better.

I woke up this morning to the news that Neal is gone. And the world suddenly seemed a little meaner. Neal was like the cool breeze you felt on a warm day. A man in constant motion, brimming with ideas. The music oozed from him the way mortals sweat out booze the morning after. He had become the consummate sideman (most notably with Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson), but had front-man talent and charisma. But as always, Neal followed the music. Wherever it took him. Stage right or standing on the center X. He deserved everything that he got. And he deserved so much more. I’m not sure he ever realized that last bit.

We stayed in touch the way most folks do these days. Email first….then social media. I grabbed every record he made as soon as he made it, and never stopped being a fan first, completely inspired by his gifts. I probably last heard from him a year ago. As always, he seemed to be in a good place, open to anyone and everything that might cross his path.  Forever the restless wanderer.

He always treated me like an equal, even though I wasn’t.

I just wish he was still here.

I wish the world was as gentle as he was.

In a bit..

–tf

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