Neal Casal, Guitarist With Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, Dies At 50

Arguably best known as lead guitarist in Adams’ band the Cardinals, Casal also played with The Jayhawks, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and more.

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Willie Nelson photo by Frans Schellekens and Redferns
Photo: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Neal Casal, the much in-demand roots-rock guitarist and singer/songwriter who played with Willie Nelson, Shooter Jennings, Ryan Adams, Phil Lesh and more, has died at the age of 50. At the time of writing, a cause of death has not been revealed.

“Neal was a gentle, introspective, deeply soulful human being who lived his life through artistry and kindness,” read the announcement of Casal’s death on his Facebook page Tuesday morning.

Arguably best known for his work as the lead guitarist in Ryan Adams’ backing band the Cardinals, Casal also played with The Jayhawks, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and the Hard Working Americans. As a studio session ace, he also played on records by Nelson, Jennings, Lucinda Williams, Amanda Shires and Tift Merritt.

However, Casal was also a prolific singer-songwriter in his own right, releasing numerous solo albums and founding the group Circles Around the Sun.

“I am absolutely devastated,”  Shooter Jennings wrote on Instagram. “[Neal] was always my favourite picker in LA and we’d just finished some beautiful music together.”

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As a teenager, Neal Casal became obsessed with the music of the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. “Those groups opened my eyes and ears to the best music, literature, film and art of all kinds,” he said in a 2016 Brooklyn Bowl interview.  “I bought every record and book that they ever spoke about in their interviews and tried to follow their instructions on how to dig in and do good work.”

Casal spent the 1990s primarily making music as a solo artist, releasing his acclaimed debut album Fade Away Diamond Time in 1995. He went on release a clutch of widely-praised titles including The Sun Rises Here, Basement Dreams and Anytime Tomorrow for labels such as Glitterhouse and Fargo, before teaming up to play with Adams in the Cardinals approximately a decade later.

“Mine hasn’t really been a rock star life,” Casal told Live & Listen in a 2018 interview. “Granted, I’ve gotten to travel the world and see a lot of things that other people haven’t. Some of the other life building events that people go through… I haven’t had some of those things. It gets harder as you get older. I’ve definitely had an amazing life in music. That’s for sure. I’ve got to make so many records, tour, take photographers, write songs, meet new friends, and all of that.”

Tributes have since poured in for the late singer/guitarist, including one from Ryan Adams who said “Oh man. My heart is broken What an honour to have known you, true believer. I love you,” Adams wrote.

Bob Harris, former host of BBC2’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, paid tribute on Twitter, writing: “I have always absolutely loved Neal Casal’s music and have played him many times on my shows on BBC Radio 2.”

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