Interview: Dave Schools Remembers Neal Casal and Todd Nance

Dean Budnick on October 16, 2020
Interview: Dave Schools Remembers Neal Casal and Todd Nance

photo by Jay Blakesberg

“I remember my mom being in this late middle-age stage of her life,” Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools recollects. “I was a teenager, and she had just lost a friend from her peer group. At the same time, all of her favorite entertainers were starting to pass away—people that she’d grown up on, like Gene Kelly. She said, ‘The longer we live, the more people we’ll have to say goodbye to.’ But you don’t really think about losing the people you love until those words ring true for you.”

That somber reflection is particularly apt on this specific day, August 26, as it is exactly one year since the bassist’s boon companion and collaborator Neal Casal took his own life. Not only that, but it is also the 20th anniversary of the untimely death of another steady friend, Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers Band bassist Allen Woody. Schools further acknowledges that August is a heavy month as his Widespread Panic co-founder Mikey Houser lost his battle with cancer on Aug. 10, 2002, and Jerry Garcia passed away on August 9, 1995. Beyond all of that, today’s call has been prompted by the unexpected August 16 passing of Todd Nance, Widespread Panic’s drummer from 1986-2016.

Schools had already completed an interview a couple of weeks earlier that touched on Casal’s death, the forthcoming tribute record Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal—which he is overseeing with Jim Scott—and the new Kenny Roby album, The Reservoir, that the bassist stepped in for Casal to produce.

Schools further muses on Nance’s passing: “When somebody checks out, they don’t have to suffer loss anymore the way that we do. All the funerals and all the tributes and everything are for us, really—to make us feel better in the absence of a person we love. In the case of Todd, he was a brother, a sibling. There’s a lot of context there—30 years in a band house and vans and buses and backstages and hotels and airplanes. It’s a lot to deal with, and I’ll be dealing with it for a long time, as will all of the members of the band in their own way. There’s no expiration date on grief.”

What are your memories of Widespread Panic’s first gig with Todd?

Before I met Todd, we’d been playing with this rotating cast of drummers. We’d even made a 45 RPM with another drummer named Joel Morris. But we were offered this show at the Mad Hatter Ballroom in Athens, Ga. with John Keane’s band, the Strawberry Flats, and none of our guys could make it. We were racking our brains saying, “What do we do? I guess we’ll have to cancel the gig.” That’s when Houser remembered this guy, Todd, that he had played with in high school in Chattanooga.

So he called up Todd and, the next thing I knew, a beat-up white Chevy Maverick pulled into the driveway. We had a good time hanging out and playing some songs and he slept on our couch—we had a bunch of cats living in the house and he was allergic to cats so, of course, they laid all over the allergic guy. But when he woke up, he was like, “I don’t feel bad.” Then, we did the gig and it was really fun. He became a soldier of love after that.

On our 25th anniversary, we played the Civic Arena, which is built on the site where the Mad Hatter had been. We recreated the gig because that’s when we felt like we had solidified and knew we had a band.

Is there a particular song that exemplifies Todd’s musical role within the group?

“Papa’s Home”—it’s like a waltz, then it’s heavy. It goes back and forth between feels and then it opens up into this three-geared jam with definitive parts. Sometimes there will be a big drum solo before it comes back around to the tail end of the song. So, while we knew there was a destination, we didn’t know how we were going to get there from night to night. Some parts of the song would ice the room because they’d be so quiet and so emotional and, then literally, five minutes later in the jam, the ceiling would fly off the arena. To me, that’s the light and heavy playing that we did really well; and the way Todd approached the vibe of that song—and getting from part to part—was just terrific. A lot of our earlier material had those quick flips, and he was so attuned to it.

From my perspective, playing together was the way it feels when a key turns the tumblers in a lock. We could get together after a few months off and it was instantaneous. With the improvisation, there were times where I was like, “What’s going on? The wheels are falling off.” But we were so in tune with each other that we could always bring it back around. It would happen naturally, whether it was Mike who decided to reel it in, or Todd who decided to reel it in, or JB [John Bell], who would reel it in by singing. We were all very much in tune with each other. So that “lock and key” description of me and him as the rhythm section expanded to the rest of the band. Then when Sunny [Ortiz] came into the fold, it took a lot of the pressure off of both of us and helped us to rhythmically decorate the things we were doing.

It was all based on feel and friendship. We weren’t looking at charts; no one showed up with sheet music. We worked on it in the kitchen or in our practice space or at soundcheck. In a lot of cases, things happened naturally onstage in front of an audience. It just got into our subconscious.

Moving beyond the stage, is there another memory of Todd that jumps out at you?

It’s like a really old Rolodex of these old memories. It’s hard to find specific ones that aren’t part of a blur. It’s like going through a microfiche catalog— it’s not digitally archived in my mind for easy access.

But I can say, without hesitation, that he was a really caring and loving person—fuzzy and sweet. That was an element that worked in the jelly that was all four of us. Everybody had a superhero talent that they brought—superhero emotional abilities to deal with different things. His was an extraordinarily black-and-white sense of right and wrong. There was no gray area in his code of ethics, while I have nothing but gray area. [Laughs.]

Todd also loved cowboy movies, and he educated me about cowboy movies. I remember one long-ass drive from somewhere to some other faraway place. It was a two-day bus ride where you stop and sleep on the bus while the driver gets a hotel room. Then, eight hours later, you’re immediately back on the road. So we watched both Lonesome Dove and Return to Lonesome Dove. We’d sit in the back lounge of the bus and watch westerns and, if you think about it, touring musicians are the only cowboys left.

We talked about all kinds of things, but he was just a caring guy. More than anything, that’s what we’ve all lost. He was this guy with a very distinct moral center, who was extremely caring and gentle, even though he could pound the living shit out of the drums. [Laughs.]

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Neal left behind some detailed instructions. Was creating the Highway Butterfly album one of those requests?

Neal left a very extensive— what I would call—manifesto. It was one part will, one part apology, one part biography and one part wishes for things. Besides the things that he wanted to go to specific people—gear and stuff—he had two specific requests. One was that, at his memorial, we would play “Moonlight Mile,” The Rolling Stones song, which was extraordinarily important to him. We put that up at The Capitol Theatre and played it before the show started. The other thing he was really hopeful about was that we would put out a book of his photos, which is coming in November and was curated and produced by Jay Blakesberg with his daughter Ricki. They did a great job. I wrote something for it, his ex-wife Christy wrote something for it, one of his photo editors wrote a very extensive piece for it— and the photos are beautiful.

I think Neal could have pursued a viable alternative career path as a fine-art photographer.

I absolutely agree. Maybe it would’ve been less heart-wrenching on him. All of his stuff was out of print; it wasn’t even on the streaming services. It is now, but the best that can be hoped for is that there is a musical legacy to go along with the photographic legacy. He had a fantastic, sort of isolated, melancholic window into the world. His photos definitely had a traveler vibe.

I have friends who were drawn to Neal’s early albums but lost touch by the mid-2000s. Of course, many other folks are more familiar with his recent music, which is why I imagine Highway Butterfly will be quite enlightening for both camps.

He made a lot of records very quickly in the ‘90s and the early 2000s. That was the way— crank out a CD and charge $18 for it. There was a flood of material and it was really easy to get swept under the rug.

Neal decided that, as an artist, what was going to suit him best—or at least afford him an actual living—was devoting much of his energy to supporting other songwriters and artists. If you were to do some sort of LexisNexis search of all the albums where he was the second guy or that he produced, it would be overwhelming. That’s not to mention the fact that he went out and supported Ryan Adams; he went out and supported Chris Robinson; he went out and supported Hard Working Americans; he created Circles Around the Sun; he helped with the Beachwood Sparks. It’s just an endless list and, fortunately, in the case of this Highway Butterfly record, there’s an endless list of people who respect his music. What they’re bringing to these sessions is love and an innate understanding of what made Neal tick as a songwriter. So whether it’s Leslie Mendelson or Marcus King or Eric Krasno coming in to record Neal’s music, everyone just sort of sifted through the material and found the nugget that truly appealed to them—that they could grok as an artist—and then they just nailed it.

It’s been a very emotional experience for Gary Waldman—who was Neal’s longtime friend and manager— and Jim Scott, who produced Neal’s first record in ‘94 as well as the last CATS record. Jim basically was Neal’s sensei—he trained him to be one of the most fastidious studio musicians that I’ve ever worked with. So someone like Jaime Wyatt will sing a line in a song, and the way she interprets it just floored us in the control room. We can’t even make eye contact with each other because it might be a little too on the nose.

Billy Strings delivered a particularly emotional reading of “All the Luck in the World.” Do you know how often he’d crossed paths with Neal over the past few years?

Billy’s delivery of the vocal on that song is just gut-wrenching. He really nailed the intent of the song.

I know that Billy really respected Neal as a musician and as a person but I think they just crossed paths at a festival or two, as many of us hardworking musicians tend to do. But Neal and Billy are both discoverers. They figure out what makes people tick pretty quickly.

I was hanging out with Billy the day that I got the news about Neal. I ended up spending the whole day with Billy and Vance Powell just talking about mental health. So it’s fitting that Billy was the first guy that we brought in to record a track for Highway Butterfly. I also want to point out that Billy paid for everything. We were fully prepared to foot the bill for flights and accommodations because we wanted all the artists to fly to Jim Scott’s studio in Santa Clarita. But Billy’s people were like, “He’s just glad to be here.”

I think the world of Billy—he’s really got his noggin screwed on right. He brings nothing other than good vibes, talent and a willingness to be open and make friends, musically and personally. I’d been watching him for probably seven years, since he was this tousle-haired bolo-wearing bluegrass kid. And the track that he recorded with the Circles guys, “All the Luck in the World,” sort of set the tone in a really positive way.

A side note is that one of the last things Neal and I were talking about was my producing a Billy Strings and Circles Around the Sun record here in San Rafael, Calif., like the one they did with Joe Russo. That never happened with Neal, but it felt right that Billy was the guy to kick off this project with the CATS guys.

I would have loved to hear the album you just described, with Billy joining Neal and Circles.

I pushed Neal to do that for two years. But Neal was a guy who didn’t like to make decisions—he didn’t like anything that could be perceived as a form of conflict, and he’d get very nervous about it and change the subject. So knowing Neal and trying to be an empathetic person, I would let it go. However, I’ve had these 15 unrecorded demos from him on my laptop for about five years, so I was up his butt to produce a record for him. I said, “At least let me co-produce or play bass. I’ll do whatever, just make another record. It’s been too long since Sweeten the Distance.” So I began this campaign where I started suggesting, “Why can’t Circles back you on a recording?” Then, if Circles wants to play these songs live then they’re there and if they don’t, then that’s cool, too. Circles really has something amazing going on but I wondered, “What is the shelf life of an all-instrumental band in this day and age?” It seemed like the logical evolution.

I couldn’t convince Neal but the idea is sort of coming through on Highway Butterfly. I want to have a sense of continuity because these tribute records are often scattershot at best. So my thought was to bring everybody to Jim’s place, which was Neal’s home base. Jim could put his sonic template—which is obviously a multiple Grammy-winning sonic template—on it. Then we’d surround these artists, who may or may not have known Neal well, with people who had played with Neal. My initial idea was that we could offer any of the artists on the record a chance to play with the band from Neal’s first solo record, which was basically Jackson Browne’s band: Bob Glaub, Don Heffington and Greg Leisz. I also thought we could offer the CRB band—Jeff Hill, Tony Leone and Adam MacDougall—or that we could offer them Circles—Adam McDougall, Dan Horne and Mark Levy—or Hard Working Americans— Duane Trucks, Jesse Aycock and me.

It turned out to be a lot of moving parts. But, Circles backed Billy. Then, the next day, we record Leslie with Jackson’s band. Later, it was Jaime Wyatt with basically CRB backing her up. So that was my way of eliminating the scattershot approach, where it just jumps all over the place. It’s going to be a magnificent listening experience. Obviously, COVID has sort of scuttled many of the plans—we weren’t able to do the third recording window in April. However, without that session, Jim just went about the task of mixing the 15 tracks we already recorded. We have one of Aaron Lee Tasjan performing “Traveling After Dark,” which is just fantastic. They’re all grand slams.

How did you come to produce Kenny Roby’s album?

Neal loved putting people together. In his will, as part of his letter, he left his extensive pedal collection to me and Tom Monahan. That was interesting because all the other things he left were all intentionally gifted to one person, like Brent Rademaker gets this amp, Jesse Aycock gets this guitar and so forth. But he always wanted me to meet Tom, and Tom later told me that Neal had kept saying, “You’ve gotta meet Dave Schools.” We never did meet before he passed away, so I can imagine this thought pattern where Neal was like, “I’m going to make sure those fuckers meet up.” I had to go over to Tom’s place in Van Nuys one afternoon and we spent four hours going through these bins of pedals that Tom had retrieved from Neal’s place in Ventura. They were in plastic tubs with plastic lids and, because Neal was a surfer, Tom had to get a bunch of sand out of the stuff and reconnect the right pedal with the right box. So it was just amazing that, even in death, he was still putting people together.

That’s been a theme that has just gone through this whole thing. When Gary moved to put this celebration of Neal’s life together at The Capitol Theatre, so many people who only knew of each other finally got a chance to get to know each other. I’d spoken to Jeff Hill, but I’ve never really sat down and worked with him. I’d never had a chance to play with Tony Leone. So the camaraderie and fellowship at that Capitol Theatre event was amazing.

Kenny and Neal had an amazing relationship. They had toured clubs in Europe together a while back and maintained a close relationship. More recently, Neal was going to produce Kenny’s record and they had been bouncing songs back and forth. Before that night at The Capitol Theatre, Gary called me and said, “I think that you should finish the Kenny record.” That meant recording it and producing it, but I knew how much Kenny had meant to Neal and vice versa.

So I was hanging out a lot with Kenny that night. At one point, we walked outside to get some fresh air on the loading dock sidewalk—where all the trucks are across from the train station—and this immense silver crescent moon was hanging in the sky. I was like, “Look at that moon, Kenny.” Then, the next thing I know, a week and a half later, Kenny told me: “I just wrote a song called ‘Silver Moon’ for Neal” and I was like, “Well, it’s going on the record.”

Kenny was going through a lot of personal issues—divorce, trying to get cleaned up, suicidal ideations. The record is extraordinarily heavy and it’s very personal. But there’s a ton of Neal and Kenny’s relationship in it.

We did a recording session that featured Tony Leone, Jeff Hill, John Lee Shannon and Jesse Aycock at Applehead studios in Woodstock, N.Y. It was a really emotionally charged session. It was almost morose at first because of the reason why we were there. But then, while we were cutting the background vocals on a silly part of a song, we all just gathered around a mic and got ridiculous. Certain people were on the floor in uncontrollable fits of laughter. After that, we knew it was going to be a thing. So Neal had put together something else.

Is there a particular song or album that you’d recommend as an entry point to someone who is unfamiliar with Neal’s work?

I’m going to say Sweeten the Distance because it’s the first record I heard. He handed it to me when he was closing the trunk on his camper car to leave from the first Hard Working Americans session. We had an exchange. He gave me a vinyl copy of Sweeten the Distance and I gave him a CD copy of Hampton Grease Band’s Music to Eat.

But it’s so hard when it’s someone so prolific, whose career has evolved over decades. Just look at all the things Neal has been involved in as a sideman and as a writer and as a co-writer. I couldn’t even pick one Hard Working Americans song, and there were only two studio records and a live record with Neal on it. There was so much eclecticism and artistry in what he added to that stuff.

So maybe a window into Neal is a playlist he created on Spotify called “Neal’s Blues” that is an almost chronological, musical autobiography. It has all the songs that influenced him. Or, maybe, the thing to do is listen to Exile on Main St. because, in his will, Neal left Gary all of his copies of Exile of Main St. That says something about a man. Just like, in my will, I’ll leave all of my copies of Led Zeppelin II to someone.