Neal Casal Talks Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson’s Guitar, Turning 50 – Rolling Stone
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Guitarist Neal Casal: The Lost Interview

In-demand musician, who died this week at 50, talked Grateful Dead, playing Willie Nelson’s “Trigger,” and why he didn’t consider himself a guitar hero

Neal Casal

Guitarist Neal Casal, who died this week at 50, reflected on his career in a previously unpublished interview from April 2019.

Katie Darby/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

While he may not have had the name recognition of some of the artists with whom he played, guitarist Neal Casal was revered across all music genres. He recorded with country stars Willie Nelson and Shooter Jennings, played slippery leads as a member of Ryan Adams’ Cardinals, advanced the blues-jam scene with Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and even bolstered Southern rock in Blackfoot with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Rickey Medlocke.

As such, news of his death at 50 on Tuesday morning was met with shock, especially as it comes just days after his band Circles Around the Sun performed a fierce late-night set at the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia on Thursday.

In April, Casal gave a previously unpublished interview in which he talked at length about the unexpected birth of Circles Around the Sun (originally formed to write and record set-break music for the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows in 2015), playing Willie Nelson’s famous Martin acoustic Trigger, and why he didn’t consider himself a guitar hero.

When Circles Around the Sun happened in 2015, was that consciously open-ended or was it supposed to be a one-off?
When we got together in 2015, we were making music for the sole purpose of those Fare Thee Well shows. There was no band name. There was no plan for it to be a record. There was no plan for it to be released. There was no plan for us to play live. There was no plan for anything other than to try and make some music that would work well for those gigs. That was it. So, you know, once those shows happened and the music got such an overwhelmingly positive reaction, then we started talk about releasing the music, coming up with a name for the project, and then later the idea for playing live came up. So yeah, it was really all just an accident.

How has the band either changed or remained the same from what the original intent was?
Well, we made a second record, which is similar in sound to the first music that we made, but I would say we developed somewhat. The first thing we did was kind of strip away the Grateful Dead references that exist there in the first place, and that had to exist there. We were asked to put them there and we were happy to do that, of course. But now we’re not beholden to that anymore. The spirit and the sound of the group is very similar, even though we’re developing it beyond where we started. The reason that we decided to continue with this group beyond the Fare Thee Well stuff was that we discovered right away that we actually have our own identifiable sounds. We have a really great chemistry as a group. We were not just some Grateful Dead cover thing at all… We’re interested in being like a dance band.

Were you ever really into that Dead and jam scene?
I was peripherally. I’ve always been a Grateful Dead fan. I saw them several times in the Eighties and Nineties, and I was an Allman Brothers fan and I saw them several times a long time ago. And [being in] New York, I used to go to the Wetlands. I used to play there a little bit. But, in my early twenties and stuff, I wasn’t really a part of the jam scene. I was really obsessed with becoming a songwriter in the classic sort of Neil Young, Jackson Browne mode and I was really into folk music. I leaned more in that direction.

You mentioned that your focus early on was making it as a songwriter. What do you think of that now when people look at you as a guitar hero?
[Laughs]. Well, it just makes me laugh, really. The honest truth is I only have three or four decent licks as a guitar player. There’s some amount of smoke and mirrors there. But it’s just how you use what you know, and maybe if anybody can learn anything from me it’s that — how to make very little go a long way. If you play guitar with the right touch and the right sounds and the right feeling, you can make very little go a long way. I’m not comparing myself to B.B. King, but he was one of those people who could just play one note and kind of speak the world to you. If I had any aspiration, it would be that, though I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that place, you know? I guess every kid who ever picks up a guitar would dream of becoming a guitar hero, but I certainly don’t see myself that way.

What are you learning about the guitar these days?
I’m studying country music right now. I’m studying the finer points of it — the way some of those records were produced, the way the guitar functions in that music. There are subtleties there that are really interesting to me and there are things that I never knew before. I’m working with Shooter Jennings right now on a record. He’s someone who understands all of that stuff so deeply and intrinsically. I’m going to be in the studio with him in a couple of hours today. Yesterday, we were making music all day that was very simple in its structure, but very sophisticated in its nuances. And I’m learning in music like that, that you leave out one note or one beat in a phrase and it just can change the entire character of the song itself.

Recently, I watched a rig rundown you did and you had a “B-bender” guitar like Clarence White used to play. When we talk about famous guitars, that has to be up there with Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” and Jerry Garcia’s “Wolf.”
I don’t know if there’s an instrument that I’d rather pick up. I think [Clarence’s B-bender] is number one for me. But I’ll tell you this, I’ve [held and played] two of the three. I’ve played “Wolf” several times. And I made a record with Willie Nelson. When I played in Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, we made a record with Willie. It’s called Songbird. Ryan produced it and the Cardinals were his band. So I played “Trigger.” [Willie] let me play it a few times that weekend.

I recently discovered that you once played in Blackfoot?
I was 20 years old. I’m from New Jersey and in the 1970s, believe it or not, Blackfoot lived in New Jersey — for years. You would think that they lived in the South or something. But they didn’t. The club scene at that time in New Jersey was really thriving and they were doing very well in it. So they were local legends. I learned to play guitar to their records. And then a friend of mine knew [Blackfoot guitarist] Rickey Medlocke at that time. Blackfoot were in some kind of down period and Rick was doing some recordings and then trying to reconstitute the band. And my friend found out that he was looking for a guitar player and suggested me. And I thought, “Oh, he’s going to think I’m too young.” But Rickey was like, “No, I don’t care how young he is, send him out here.” So I went out and tried out for him and I kind of knew all the songs and he gave me the gig. And that’s how I left home. I mean, I just quit my job, packed up my car, I moved out to Detroit where Rickey lived, and I lived in a barn for like a year. Completely destitute.

Living the rock & roll dream…
Well, yeah. It was a pretty funky time, man. It was the late Eighties and Blackfoot were on the other side of their success. And we played some pretty rough clubs in the South and the Midwest. Pretty rough characters at these gigs, rough times for me. But it got me on the road and we traveled in a van and I got to see the South, which is what I really wanted to do. Some people want to go to New York and they want to go to Los Angeles, but I wanted to go to the South first because that was where all the music that I was into originated.

You turned 50 this year. What’s your mindset these days on life and the grand scheme of things?
[Laughs]. I don’t know what to say. I know less now than I’ve ever known in my life.

But isn’t that wisdom though? Isn’t that one of the things about getting older, where you realize how much you don’t know and that there’s actually some intrinsic value in that?
Sure, of course. Definitely. I have a little bit of wisdom to impart to people I suppose. Turning 50 has just done really nothing but humble me. So that’s really all I have to say about it.

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