The late local bowmaster Hal Casey takes his final bow
When the discussion turns to naming the best musician in talent-rich Syracuse on any given instrument, there’s plenty of room for debate. Go ahead, name the best guitarist, drummer or vocalist. You can’t do it. Perhaps the only player who has come close to being named the best by consensus, fiddler Hal Casey, died on Jan. 17 at age 83.
Everybody who follows country music locally knows that the six-time New York state fiddle champ was remarkably expressive and flawlessly skilled at playing country and bluegrass tunes. Yet Casey was also adept at entertaining fans who refer to his instrument as a violin as he was classically educated, although he left behind a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music to play jazz professionally.To fans who spent Saturday nights two-stepping in local clubs and Sunday afternoons partying at jamborees, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, when country ruled many local nightspots, Casey was king, the top name on the long list of roadhouse luminaries. Offstage, friends and fans grew to love their favorite fiddler’s quirky sense of humor and colorful war stories, always delivered with an impish grin and a comedian’s timing.
His colleagues revered him, generally calling him first whenever they had a special show or recording session that called for a fiddler who could play any song, fill any role. About the only reason Casey may not have gotten a gig would have been if an insecure singer or guitarist knew it was nearly impossible to keep the virtuoso bow man from stealing the show.
His own career band, Hal Casey and North Country, had to wait until he was ready to settle down in his native Central New York after playing in several symphony orchestras, touring the East Coast with the jazz band he formed, appearing with country’s finest performers as a stage musician on the Grand Ole Opry and forming lifelong friendships with such renown musicians as revered fiddler Vassar Clements. Among the famed performers for whom Casey rosined his bow were Ernest Tubb, Bill Haley and the Comets, Randy Travis and Brook Benton.
Back home, he was a 1976 inductee into the North American Fiddlers’ Hall of Fame in Osceola and performed the “Orange Blossom Special” at the Landmark Theatre as a member of the 2001 class of honorees for the Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys) Hall of Fame. The humble Casey was nearly speechless when the Sammys crowd that night stood and applauded him, later saying that recognition was the pinnacle of his storied career, “It’s right at the top,” he said, “without a doubt.”
Joe Davoli and Rob Lauzon were among the talented young fiddle players who admired Casey, while every country musician of his era recognized Casey as a once-in-a-lifetime talent. “He was the best,” raves Southern Comfort Band leader Eric Will, who traveled to Nashville with Casey many times, including annual pilgrimages during the mid-1970s. “He was a master, everybody knew it.”
Guitarist Loren Barrigar partnered with Casey, starting in the early 1980s, whenever Casey needed a reliable lead guitarist to supplement his band. “I always jumped at the chance to do it,” Barrigar says. “When I got some things going and some shows, he was one of the first guys I called. When I needed a little more reinforcement for something bigger, Hal was at the top of the list that we took along. As a musician, Hal listened well and he was a heck of an improviser. You know, he was a consummate pro.”
Barrigar continued to team up periodically with Casey until their last gig together a few years ago, when the fiddler used his educated fingers to call his friend’s number for a gig at the Redhouse, knowing their years of working together would carry them. “He called me to come play with him,” Barrigar recalls, “No rehearsal, I just showed up and played. Somebody promised me a DVD of that show. I sure hope I get it.”
At the time of Casey’s death, friends were working with his family to set up a benefit show, but have now shifted gears. “I talked to (son) Jerry and (wife) Diana and we’re going to have a tribute to Hal this summer,” says Will. “We want to do it when all of his old friends are in town from Florida.”
If they expect to host all of Hal Casey’s fans, friend and admirers, they’re going to need a big place. “Hal was always a gentleman on every front,” recalls Barrigar. “In how we approached things in life and in music, we just hit it off. He was not only the kind of guy you wanted to play along with, he was the kind of guy you would want to have a cup of coffee with and talk about a few things.”
In spite of his sadness at losing an old friend, Barrigar couldn’t
hold back a laugh at the memory of Casey’s penchant for hilarious tales.
“He always had time for having coffee and swapping a few stories.“