Nils Lofgren

Posted November, 2011


NilsLofgrenFOTEX RAINER DRECHSLERPhoto by Ranier DrechslerIn 1970, I was an eleven year old punk in Phoenix who was migrating from listening to the two or three Elvis 45’s we had in the house to listening to local rock radio stations. Some of my earliest memories of non-Elvis radio are of the haunting Neil Young song, Southern Man, that called out the horrors of racism in the south.

I didn’t grasp the meaning of the song at the time nor was I fully aware of who was singing it and who all was on the record. In time, I came to fully appreciate the song, the artist and those who helped put the iconic album together. One of those who helped Neil out on the album with piano and guitar was a young whipper snapper by the name of Nils Lofgren., who was also fronting his own band, Grin.

Lofgren went on to help Young on his next solo album, Tonight’s the Night, as well as serving a brief stint in Young’s Crazy Horse. In the years since then, Nils has crafted 43 solo albums (about which he says, “Ah, gee, I’ve lost count. I’m just thrilled to be making records and have a batch of new songs that I’m able to record and get out to share.”), contributed tunes to such shows as The Simpsons. He’s helped friends like Patti Scialfa and Lou Reed on their solo projects as well as serving two tours of duty with Ring Starr’s All-Starr Band. Most notably, however, is Lofgren’s role as guitarist and vocalist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Lofgren has just completed his 44th solo album entitled Old School, which lands on December 6th.

He called me from his Phoenix area home (and my old home town) to discuss the album. After comparing notes about Phoenix I asked Nils how this album was different from the others as far as how it came together.

“The main difference is that I wanted to do a homegrown thing here at home. Over the years I recognized that I just don’t have patience in a recording studio. I thrive in a live setting where you’re playing in front of a live audience. I tried to come up with some rules and tricks to keep myself engaged.

“One would be that, after I wrote the songs, I would practice performing them until I could sing and play them very comfortably and fluidly as a performance and not even bother recording until I could sing and play the song live very easily. Thus, I went after live vocals in most cases and I think I got ‘em in 10 out of 12 songs. Even with large patches of guitar playing I went with a live approach and took half from this take and half from that take as opposed to crafting line after line kind of thing. So the main thing was to keep as live and emotional as possible even though it was a homegrown singular effort on my part.”

Lofgren shared some details about his home recording arrangement and how he used it to record Old School.

“I have big 8 car, adobe garage. A quarter of it has been turned into a studio where I got all of my equipment out of Marylandnilsanddogs where I grew up years ago. It’s right across the yard and I go out there and leave the doors open. My dogs come in and out and visit me. Because I’m not technically savvy my engineer friends upgraded me to a 24 track hard drive. But I don’t use a computer so, rather than have a million tracks, I had 24. I had a Mackie console and I just learned enough to print everything hot and good, clean sounds to tape and not mess it up with EQ.

“Finally, near the end of the project, even though 90 percent of it was done in that setting, I went over to a Pro Tools studio called Studio Cat Productions and a local, great engineer by the name of Jamison Weddle. We used that format to actually do the mixing which gave me a lot of freedom for instant recall. You know, you drive around and listen to a mix for a couple of days. It sounds fine then you get an idea and, of course, with Pro Tools you can recall the exact mix and just change that one idea. That was a useful tool at the end for mixing.

“But, in general, it was all in my garage to my 24 track. There’s a remote control as opposed to a computer so everything has numbers going up and back giving me the illusion of fast-forward and reverse – that kind of thing – just to kind of trick my old-school mind into working with this technology and still being comfortable enough to make a record mostly on my own.”

At one point in our conversation, Nils described his home of 15 years in the greater Phoenix area.

“We’ve got two and a half acres of desert land with dogs. It’s kind of a little compound my wife found – a 1935 adobe home so it’s really an old slice of early Arizona history and culture. It’s a beautiful, ancient desert compound. There’s nothing like this around. We are grateful to have it and find it.”

As our conversation comes back around to discussing Old School, I commented to Nils that I got the sense that the album is heavy with nostalgia.

“Gosh, I’m not sure. I guess, in a sense yes. Part of that is that was coming up on 60 years of age – which now I am – it was more of a reflection of acknowledging that, at 60, I’m a lot more schizophrenic and emotional than I thought I would be. When you’re a kid, you look at someone that old like your ancient grandparent. Now I realize – I look at the TV and realize my world is screwed up. I have great anxiety about my planet.

“A long like Miss You Ray talking about losing family and friends but having to look around and acknowledge that there’s some left – how you temper loss with what you still have and temper the pain with gratitude for what is left. Seeing the glass half empty is sort of a knee-jerk reaction as you get older and you have to start paying attention to see it half full – pay more attention to what’s around you and the goodness as you deal with all of the anxieties that come with the planet we’re in, the time we’re in and, also, getting older. And, so, it’s a bit of that – a bit of nostalgia but with a sense of hope for the future tempered by a reality and wisdom I hope sometimes rears its head in my old age.”

One song that I’m particularly intrigued with on the album is song Dream Big. Next to the lyrics printed with the album is a picture of a couple. I asked Nils if that picture was of his parents did the lyrics reflect advice that either of them had given him when he was younger.

“Yes on both counts. My mom and dad, their hobby was dancing. They used to play big band swing music and go dancing every weekend. They were very aware of the therapeutic, healing properties of music and when I wanted to take accordion lessons, for my sixth birthday they paid for them and encouraged me my whole life with my musical endeavors.

“So, yeah, without spelling it out that literally as I do in this song that was their message: Be proud of yourself. Follow your dreams and try to do it with dignity and humility. It’s a very dark, ominous kind of song because now I feel like you gotta do at least that to keep your head above water. You’ve really got to start paying attention. It’s easy to go under with anxiety, doubt and fear and depression.

NilsLofgrenJANMLUNDAHL“But, again, a lot of times I turn on the TV not to get down in it so much but to make sure that there hasn’t been som calamity in LA where I’ve got to drive east or vice versa. Then I’m like, ‘Okay, the world’s still here. Turn off the TV and go back to your work or your day or your dogs or your wife or whatever.’ It was more of an ominous thing like, ‘Yeah, man, I’ve gotta keep dreamin’ big and try to stay humble, work hard and dance a lot meaning even if you’re in a wheelchair, just find ways to be young at heart and try to find hobbies that aren’t dangerous to your health but are freeing to your spirit whether it’s music, dance, bingo with friends, whatever. Just get out of your head and try to do it in an admirable, positive way and just keep trying to fight the good fight and be thankful for what you have while you’re seeking more.

“At this point I’ve been blessed. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. Admittedly, I’ve had a fabulous 43 year career in music. My wife does good charity work in town. I do benefits to help her out. We’re looking to – in just a small way – give back and participate in charities whenever we can just to feel like we’re put of the solution even in a small way instead of the problem.”

Another song that I found interesting is 60 Is The new 18. Lofgren shares his thoughts about that song.

“Well, the lyrics are very self-explanatory. Basically, when you’re a kid – anyone who makes it to sixty you have this vision of the old grandpa in the chair, people are running to put his slippers on or get him a drink. He’s revered and respected. The truth is – I have a sense of humor about it – kids just think you’re some old fart. Nobody respects you. It’s like you’re Rodney Dangerfield of your community. A lot of times that can be a funny thing ‘cause people like me have a sense of humor about it. But, for most people, it’s a much more ominous thing. Right now there’s a lot of people around that age are unemployed, serious health issues, and they don’t know where they’re going. There’s a lot of shame and guilt that goes with the economy not allowing for dignity; the racket of healthcare where they’re not looked for and cared for – it’s very demoralizing and shameful adventure for a lot of people.

“Although I experienced some of that angst, I have a great life right now. I don’t know if I’ll have it in ten years with what’s going on today but I get it. I have my own fears. I look at the TV and I’m helpless to fix my world and I’m mad about it. I’ve very, very upset with the governments of the whole planet and with what’s going on and the corruption and the graft.

“This character in this song is taking it to new heights. He’s lost touch with his family. He’s abusing pills, alcohol, drugs. He’s cheatin’ on his wife. He’s miserable. He’s never felt more alone. He’s scared and he’s also full of rage because you just don’t imagine that set of emotions for someone who makes it to sixty. It’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek, dark song about 60 is the new 18 and it’s not just the new 18 to have a beautiful life ahead of you with hopes and dreams. It’s also the 18 of where you don’t know what you’re doing or how you’re going to do it; the insecurity of being young and not knowing who you are or what you want to be. The whole planet is saying, ‘Pick a career. Pick a college, map out your whole life and get it straight, kid!’ What an awful thing! We’re still doing it to our kids!

“I remember having it done to me and it wasn’t even my parents. My parents just encouraged me to try to be happy. But still that’s what the planet did. I’m like, ‘What do you mean pick a career? I don’t even know who the hell I am! I’m a teenager. My hormones – every six months I wake up a stranger and you’re telling me to pick a career?’ There’s people who might not know what they want to do when they’re 30 but at least they’ve found the humility to work, take care of themselves, meet their overhead and have some sort of dignity while they’re looking and all that goes in between.

“The character in this song, he’s past that. He’s 60 now and all hell’s breakin’ loose and he doesn’t know what he’s gonna do. He’s breakin’ out in pimples from anxiety. He’s abusing everything in front of him and he knows it.” Lofgren then quotes a line from the song, “ . . . atone what I can, earn some self-respect, in a world in love with escape and neglect”. He’s learned that – escape and neglect – and it’s rubbed off on him and he’s in deep trouble in that moment in the song. Nevertheless, part of being 18 is having some hope and dreams and I would like to think that at almost any age you can find those but it’s a lot harder when you get older.”

One of my favorites off of the disc is Let Her Get Away that Nils wrote with the late Root Boy Slim. I asked Lofgren for the NilsLofgrenJOSEPHQUEVER2back story to that tune and its creation.

“Oh, man! Are you familiar with Root Boy Slim? He was this genius out of Yale who fried his brain with drugs who was a basket case but functional genius who started writing these songs like Zappa and the Fugs. They’re crazy lyrics – hilarious, witty, and he had great bands. Great musicians played with Root Boy. He was a local, avant garde/Hunter Thompson type hero in our community. We were friends and I’d always go to see him play. His lyrics would either make you cringe or laugh. He was always very thoughtful and surprisingly intelligent.

“One day we were in my backyard in this place I rented in Bethesda, Maryland, when I was living there. We were just talking. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I said, ‘You know? We really out to try to write a song together sometime.’ He said, ‘What kind of song are we writin’?’ I started playing a little melody riff which is the song and we started kind of hummin’ and singin’. The next thing I know, over the course of a few hours, we started crafting a song and it was really feeling good. We stuck with it and finished it in literally one afternoon. It was this beautiful, haunted, kind of a Kris Kristofferson type let her get away/can’t let you get away, too. Again, to me, very metaphorical about the rough times were in. You lose something, you try to get it back and you can’t. You just keep trying to hang on to what you can and trying to find some insight into that journey.

“It’s kind of a mystical song to me. It could even be about the same woman that’s still in your life but the core person you knew 20 years ago – that’s been destroyed by tragedy or whatever. But the person’s still there and you love them and you’re just trying to hang on. There’s a lot of layers to it but it’s a very haunted piece that Root Boy and I wrote years and years ago. I made a demo that was beautiful but it was all so scratchy on a little four track cassette recorder. It was so noisy and I kept debating to share it, noise and all. Then, finally, this record being old school, being a song I love and never been able to share it, I go, ‘Man, stop whining about it! You’re a professional musician. Just re-record it! Get over it! Yeah, it was a great take but, geez! That was over 20 years ago! You can write and sing and play. Just bite the bullet, start from scratch, and make that record again and make it right!” That’s the history of that one.”

Lofgren dedicated the album to his E Street Band mate, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, who recently passed away. I asked Nils what he feels the world doesn’t know about Clemons but should.

“Geez, they know a lot about him but, you know, even though I stood next to him for 27 years on stage and had a beautiful friendship on stage – very deep musically and personally, I had a greater friendship and gift from Clarence as a friend off stage. We talked every week. From the moment I joined the band he was always there for me and always had a smile and a kind word. He was always someone I felt comfortable with no matter how good or bad my lot was on that day or that point. I always felt that he was a great confidant and sounding board for any and all trials and tribulations, good and bad. I do miss him and am heartbroken that he’s gone. I have a lot of great memories that I’m trying to hold on to. I believe he’s up there, glad that I’m carrying on singing and making music and trying to value every day I can. We miss him terribly.”

It’s easy to guess that Nils must own a store full of guitars and other instruments. I was curious if there was a guitar that he considered a “holy grail” and if he owned it.

“Well, you know, I’m an accidental collector. I’ve probably got a hundred and some guitars that I didn’t really set out to collect. But I’ve been on the road for 43 years. Of course a lot of that is a function of being the swing man now in the E Street Band for eleven years where I’m playing dobro’s and bottlenecks and lap-steels and six-string banjos and that’s a whole other dozens of instruments that aren’t technically guitars but are in that family.

“But I have to say, as far as seeking anything, I couldn’t think of one. By far, the most treasured guitar I have – which every guitar you hear on Let Her Get Away is this old, funky D18 that Neil Young used to write on. When we did After The Gold Rush – if you open the album, he’s laying on a couch at the Troubadour – there’s a shot of Neil Young on a couch and right next to his head is a guitar leaning against a wall. It’s this old D18. When we were doing the sessions, he needed me to play guitar and he said, ‘Get your acoustic’ and I said that I didn’t own one. So he said, ‘Here, borrow this one’ and he gave me this guitar. I used it on Tell Me Why. I played it on Till The Morning Comes and, after the end of the sessions, he said, ‘You know what? You can keep that guitar as a gift. Thanks for helping with this record.’ I was so freaked out. I remember we were up in the hills in Topanga Canyon. I grabbed that D18 without the case and I ran about a hundred yards in the deep woods. I just got lost in the forest, sat there under a big tree and just played it for hours. Then I walked back and, from that day on that was mine and it’s certainly my holy grail of guitars. It’s old and funky. It’s all beat up. It’s not like this rich, beautiful, classy sound. It’s kind of a funky sound. I used it on my Nils Sings Neil album where I play Neil Young songs live in the home. Obviously, that’s the only guitar that I could use for that record. But that would be my favorite – my most special, historic guitar.”

When I asked Lofgren what he still would like to accomplish in his career, he chuckled and said, “Oh, geez, I guess the obvious thing would be that I would like to think that this new record is as good a record as I’ve ever made. I’d like to keep getting better at making records and performing even though I don’t have a record company and I’m not on the charts and all of that. More and more, people keep discovering me because I’ve gotten better at sharing musical ideas that are emotional and inspiring to people to where I find a larger audience through getting better at what I do. I’m a performer at heart.

“I don’t dream of stadiums. I just dream of a larger audience to where you’re playing theaters and you bring your own stage and sound and lights and you can control the thing more. Because of the larger audience, you can bring a five piece band and crew and have lights and sound – have the freedom to really delve into creating a show. That’s where I’m at my best and most engaged is in the live setting. So, that’s all: Just keep getting better at what I do. I think that this is a great record. I think it has that potential. Whether it happens or not, my job is to keep getting better at what I do.”

As for tour plans to support Old School, Nils said, “I’ve got a couple of shows in February in Virginia. They’re kind of an annual performance there at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, with my brothers and Greg Varlotta who’s working with me on our duet show. We do an acoustic duo. That’s it. I’m laying low for awhile, promoting the record, work on a video or two and hope to promote the record most of next year and get to a lot of places.”

As our chat was wrapping up, I asked Nils Lofgren how he would like to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy would be. As he was with the first question I asked him, his answer to this question revealed a man who takes such things as life’s meaning very seriously. That comes from experience – especially the experience of losing friends and loved ones.

“Oh, man! You’re killing me here! I mean, honestly, to give you a respectful answer, I might take an hour of thought. You know what it is? I feel – and you can see it as kind of a theme throughout this record – I feel like I’m learning and growing. I feel that way not just musically but as a person. So, I’m hoping – whether its two months or two years or twenty years or forty years, I’m going to be able to give you a better tombstone than what I come up with today. I’d rather it be a work in progress towards something a little more useful and practical legacy. Something a little more substantial to offer than I have today – not that I don’t feel like I’m a decent person. But I’d like to think that that’s a work in process and, hopefully, I’ll have a little more time to create a better answer to that.”

Whether you’re old school or new school, if you still want to go to school to learn how to play the guitar and unleash your inner rock star, then Nils can help you. Simply click go to NilsLofgren.com and follow the links to the school. Once there, you can pick and choose from the wide range of lessons offered there. You’ll learn great blues riffs and scales, various chord progressions and picking techniques. Not only are the lessons offered in English but also in Spanish and Italian for those who are more comfortable communicating in one of those languages. Be sure and check it out.

And, while you’re at NilsLofgren.com, you may as well sign up for his mailing list so that you can stay in the loop as to what all is going on in his world. You can be sure that he’s always up to something interesting and creative.

Mark Lindsay

Posted May, 2010

marklindsay1b cropWe all remember the 60’s and all the great groups that permeated the times.  A signature of those times was the “regimented” look of the band members.  Whether it was suits, dresses, or even uniforms, yes, uniforms, it was felt that bands needed to have some sort of similar attire.

One group found that their uniforms were almost as famous as the band itself.  That group was none other than Paul Revere and the Raiders.  The name of the band pretty much begged that they wear colonial soldier uniforms and so they did. Frontman, Mark Lindsay, became even more “revolutionary” by growing his hair long and wearing it in a ponytail that was typical of colonial men.  The name, Mark Lindsay, became synonymous with the signature ponytail. And this was back in 1965!

Despite their notoriety related to their stage wear, Lindsay and his fellow merry raiders enjoyed a pretty decent list of successful hits.  Songs like Louie, Louie (recorded around the same time and in the same studio as the same hit by The Kingsmen), Kicks (their best-known hit), Hungry, Just Like Me, What’s It Gonna Be?, Good Thing, and The Great Airplane Strike , made Paul Revere and the Raiders the top-selling rock group at Columbia Records in the mid to late sixties. The band added to their notoriety by being the featured band on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is.

Mark and the band closed out the sixties with sixteen Top 40 Hits.  However, it wasn’t until 1971 that the Raiders had their one and only number one hit with Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian) which, at that time, was the largest selling single for CBS Records.

Mark Lindsay also enjoyed his own successful solo recording career with songs like Arizona and Silver Bird (which later also became a Yamaha commercial).  He left the Raiders in 1975, with his solo career interrupted only by a stint as an executive with United Artists Records.  He also enjoyed success composing music.

In recent years, Mark has ridden the nostalgic wave by performing his iconic hits (Raiders and solo work) while on successful tours including the upcoming Happy Together 25th Anniversary Tour with the likes of The Turtles, The Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, The Grass Roots, and The Buckinghams.

With such an impressive and illustrious list of accomplishments, it was an honor to have been able to recently chat with Mark Lindsay about what he’s been up to, the Happy Together Tour and his views of the music industry.

With a career that spanned over forty years, I asked Mark what sort of demographic made up his fan base and the attendance at his shows.

With a chuckle, he replies, “Judging from the stuff that we get on Facebook and the audience that shows up, it’s across the board.  We have fans from the ’60s who grew up with that music and there are a lot of kids there, meaning from 16 to 20 who have discovered rock and roll, I guess, and, maybe, these old, ‘classic artists’, I’ll call them, and are really liking the music.  It’s crossing three generations. It’s amazing!”

In discussing the “legs” that classic rock still has in the music industry today, I asked Lindsay why he thought the genre is still popular today.

“I think that the music that appealed to teenagers at the time it did, there was something in the songs  - in the music – that tweaked an adolescent fancy, let’s say, and it still works today.  Of course, if you grew up with it, you’ll never let it go.

“Again, it just maybe something genetically that teenagers related to then still works now. There are a lot of new groups today that are having a lot of success but it’s still rock and roll.  It’s just another color but its rock and roll.

“It’s funny but rock and roll has had the longest run, I think, of any genre of music.  For example, every big ‘fad’, we’ll call it, or ever big ‘bump’ in music has had a decade or so of popularity. Like ragtime or swing or whatever it might be only had a decade or a decade and a half of popularity.

“Rock and roll came in and everybody thought it was going to be a passing fad, including Mitch Miller, the guy who signed the Raiders to CBS.  But rock and roll just has legs.  There’s something about the music that gets in your soul and you can’t let it go!

“There was a focus and rock and roll had a focus.  You mix in a couple of parts of teenage angst and some longing and some desire, it just crosses a lot of emotional bounds or boundaries and you put it all together. Also, there are only eleven or twelve notes to deal with.  I can sit down and write you a totally original tune that’s never been heard before and it would be very convoluted.  But, there are only certain intervals and jumps, if you will, that sound right to the human ear – to western music.  You can go far afield if you want, but it has to stay within certain boundaries, to a great extent, or it’s not going to work. So, you follow the formula and it works.  If you get to far afield, you go, ‘Yeah, that’s interesting’, next?  Isn’t this innovative?  Yeah, but it sounds like crap!

Even though Mark enjoys a successful tour schedule, there are still lots of fans who either haven’t seen him in over 30 years, if at all.  So, I asked him what his fans can expect at his shows today – especially on the Happy Together Tour.

With humility, he says, “Since I was lucky enough to sing every hit that Paul Revere and the Raiders ever had, and some solo stuff, too, I’ll just do – depending on how much time I have – I’ll do as many hits as I can. It will be a cross-section of the hits I sang with Paul Revere and the Raiders and the hits that I had on my own.”

 And for those who did see him back in the day, what would be different with today’s show from then?  With a laugh, he says with a laugh, “It’s just better now, of course!  It’s funny, but I think that I’m actually singing better now than I did then.  I work at it now.  Before I just never spent any time working on the fundamentals but now I do vocal exercises and stuff just to stay in shape but it’s actually improved my voice. So, there you go!  They’re going to hear the songs probably sounding better than they did in the 60’s live.”

Segueing to the subject of the Happy Together tour, Lindsay adds, “They (the audience) get a real slice of the sixties – instead of seeing one or two artists, you get a whole cross-section of the music of that time because you have five or six artists. It’s kind of like putting your iPod on shuffle and listening to your favorite artists.”

With all the music Mark has been behind as well as the great artist he’s worked with, I was curious what music from today’s roster does he like and what is on his iPod.

“I love Coldplay.  Their songs are real songs.  The Killers have some good stuff.  There are some groups out there that are good but Coldplay is one of the groups that are really hot – have been hot for quite a while. Their songs are almost classics already. They’re writing good songs – good melodies.

“I listen to a lot of country.  A lot of country music today – what they call country – is almost like rock and roll from the seventies.  It’s true! A lot of stuff that’s a hit on your local country station could have been a rock and roll hit by the Allman Brothers.

“I like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban.  They’re both really talented.  They write great songs and they play their butts off!  I’m a big fan of both.  There are other people, too, but those guys are standouts because they’re really complete musicians and writers.”

Even though a lot has been written about Lindsay and the Raiders, there had to be some things that are least known or are most misunderstood about them.

“Well, I doubt that the Raiders will ever get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and that’s not based on their musical ability.  I think when people think of Paul Revere and the Raiders, they immediately think of the revolutionary costumes – because we were on television so much – in fact, we were the most televised band in the ’60s.  We did almost a thousand television appearances. Of course, we were wearing the tights and the high boots, raider coats and the hats.  People just have that emblazoned in their memory and I think they think of the silly outfits and they don’t realize that we did some pretty good rock and roll music, too.

“I know that the Raiders have come up many times to be suggested to be nominated (into the Rock Hall of Fame).  People just see the uniforms and don’t think of the music and we just get voted down.  You never know! If I could change just one thing, I would tell people, ‘Just listen to the music and forget about the clown suits!’”

From the vantage point of over forty years in the music business, I asked Mark to relay what he sees as the biggest changes in the business.

“Well, one of the biggest changes, of course, because it’s a whole new genre of music, would be rap music.  I’m not going to judge whether it’s positive or negative.  Obviously, it’s positive from a revenue standpoint.  I think some of the rap music is a little violent but a lot of it is positive, too. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater but I’d say the advent and dominance of rap is the biggest change I’ve seen in my musical career.”

I was curious about what Mark would do differently if he were 15 today, looking to enter the music business.

“That is a good question!  If I was starting today, I would be like kinda like Eminem. I would be a white artist with some music behind me. I always liked rhythm and rhyme.  I’m guessing that is where I would get into because I’m not a virtuoso on any instrument.  I write a little on piano and play a little guitar but you don’t want to hear me play in person!  I did play some sax.  I’ve always been stronger with lyrics than with music, although I do write both, I would probably gravitate more to rap.”

 Is there a band today that makes Lindsay think: They’re the Paul Revere and the Raiders of today?

“No, there are so many very interesting groups today that aren’t that commercial.  I can’t pick out one that group that if you set back the clock that they would be the Raiders.

As our time together was drawing to a close, I asked Mark what projects we could expect from him in the near future.

“Actually, I’ve been going through half-finished – as Paul Simon said, ‘Looking through manuscripts of unfinished rhymes’.  I’m looking through some stuff and there are a couple of songs that are finished.  A couple I’m looking at and going, ‘Yeah! That would really work!’ Some of them might be kind of far out, lyrically.  The ideas are pretty strange but they’re rock and roll and I think that they might work! I’m sifting through the ashes and seeing if I can start a fire.”

Speaking of fire, if you would like to revisit that spark of the hot, musical passion from your youth, you can see Mark Lindsay during the Happy Together 25th Anniversary tour beginning this summer.  Click here to see if the tour is coming to a town or city near you.

You can also keep up with Mark’s latest activities by bookmarking his website, www.marklindsay.com.  You can also take advantage of his free e-mail newsletter and check out the musical goodies and memorabilia at his store on his website.

Chuck Leavell Discusses Back To The Woods

Posted March, 2012

 

back to the woodsIf you’ve been following Boomerocity at all, you know that we’re absolutely nuts over Rose Lane and Chuck Leavell.  We have them placed on a very high pedestal for a lot of reasons – reasons such as their strong marriage (38 years and counting), their devotion to family as well as the incredible work in forestry and conservation.

Of course, in the world of music, Chuck Leavell is one of THE class acts in rock and roll.  As noted in our interview with Chuck just slightly over a year ago (here), this man has tickled the ivories with the biggest names in rock and roll, R&B, country and other genres.  When you add to all of that his autobiography (Between Rock and a Home Place) and his books on forestry and conservation, I’d say that all of these accomplishments pretty much put Mr. Leavell in line for nomination into the Renaissance Man Hall of Fame.

Leavell is now carving out yet another niche of excellence with his homage to the early greats of the blues piano via his latest album, Back To The Woods. If you love blues – and if you love piano – then you’re going to absolutely love this album and can read the Boomerocity review of it here.

Chuck was kind enough to send me a review copy of Woods and before I could even finish my first pass at the disc, I fired off a note to him asking if we could chat about the album.  Ever the gentleman, he obliged.

Before we hunkered down to chatting about Back To The Woods, I asked Leavell how things were going at the beautiful Charlane Plantation (which is on my bucket to visit). Not surprisingly, his response exhibited his love for not only the property but also the work associated with it.

“We're doing great here. We had the best quail hunting season we've ever had, and in spite of the drought of 2011 (we were about 12 inches under for rainfall for the year), our forest and wildlife habitat are in fine shape. We have also started to experiment with retreats from time to time, which amounts to offering a few days here for folks to relax, take a forestry tour, walk our nature trail, paint (my wife, Rose Lane, is an artist), do photography, whatever…and be well fed in the process. We post the offerings on our site: www.charlane.com. We love what we do here and are very passionate about it.”

When I asked him if he was happy with how his conservation work was going, with a healthy, balanced pride he said, “Very much so. The US Forest Service recently gave me an Honorary Ranger Award, which is as good - or better - than the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award we just got for the Allman Brothers Band. Chief Tom Tidwell came down to Atlanta to present it to me, along with about 100 uniformed Rangers in attendance. It was a very special day for me.

“Also, we continue to grow at our environmental website, The Mother Nature Network (www.mnn.com). We are getting over 4 million visits a month, and recently passed the EPA in visits per month. MNN gives me a wonderful platform to keep folks in tune with environmental issues of all kinds - whether it's recycling, energy use, community and/or personal responsibility issues, we cover it all.

“My recent book, Growing A Better America, is doing well and can now be found in over 20 airports across the country as well as online on my site, www.chuckleavell.com, Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, etc. So I continue to get my messages out there as best and as often as possible.”

As we shifted gears to discuss Back To the Woods, I unashamedly gushed that my two favorites from the album are Loosing Hand and Boots and Shoes. I asked Chuck what drove him to tackle such a project.

“It came at the suggestion of my son-in-law, Steve Bransford. Steve is a wonderful guy, and oh so smart. He is a PhD graduate from Emory University in Atlanta. His discipline is American History with an emphasis on visual arts and roots music. How cool is that? So Steve comes to me a little over a year ago and says, 'You know, there has been a lot of projects that celebrate folks like blues guitar players, blues songwriters and singers, jazz figures and such, but to my knowledge, no one has paid tribute to the early blues piano players . . . and I think you are the guy to do it’ and he hands me 3 CDs of some 150 early recordings to listen to. Much of it I was already aware of, but quite a lot of it was new to me.

“So I began listening and eventually selected about 50 songs that I thought would be appropriate for me to interpret. From there, we culled it down to 15 for the project. These are mostly unknown or little known names - Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Skip James - although we did cover an Otis Spann song and a very early Ray Charles song, both of which you mentioned. Losing Hand was recorded by Ray in 1953, I believe, and Boots and Shoes, the Spann track, was the most recent song in terms of the project - somewhere around 1963. Most of the other recordings we covered were pre-war era.”

In explaining how working on Woods was different to work on than any of the previous albums - solo or otherwise – Chuck said, “It has this particular focus of paying homage to these blues pianists. We have a 16 page booklet in the package that gives some history of these artists, and explain the role of the piano during this period in American history. In terms of the music itself, my intention was to interpret them in a more modern setting, more modern arrangements…but keeping the essence of the songs intact. In doing that, it shows how these players have influenced my own style. It was a very targeted project.”

Knowing that Leavell’s musical education is both broad and deep, I asked him how much of the music on Woods inspired him early in his career and how much of it he’s discovered later on in life.

“Most of this music I discovered later in my career but I started listening to Ray Charles quite early on. My parents had some of his records and I just loved them. When I was about 13 I went with my sister, Judy, to a Ray Charles concert in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we grew up. It totally changed my life. I was already playing piano and guitar and that night I decided that I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life.

“Ray is still my true musical hero. The other artists came later for me.  Otis Spann played quite a lot with Muddy Waters and other Chicago blues artists. I probably started listening to that stuff when I was 17 or so. The more obscure artists on our project I probably became aware of around the early 70's and beyond. Hey! I'm still a student!”

Like many of you, I can’t just listen to an album and enjoy the music.  I have to know not only who played on an album but who engineered it, where all it was recorded and, if the songs aren’t written by the recording artists, how did they come about selecting other peoples songs to record.  In the case of Back To The Woods, I was also curious as to how Chuck decided who would play on which songs.  For instance, did John Mayer say, "Hey!  I want to play on Wish Me Well and Boots and Shoes!"?

“We were so fortunate to get them. Starting with Keith, I contacted him and he agreed to play on it, but I would have to do it in NY. As I was calling around to try and find a studio, I contacted John's right hand guy, Ken Helie. I had already been working with John on his record at Electric Lady Studios up there. I asked Ken if he had a contact at ELS for me to book some time. He came back to me to say that John would be happy for me to use some of his time that he had blocked out.

“So that begged the question would John come and play, too? He agreed, and we got them both in the same day. It was so great. But before I got them, we had recorded most of the tracks in my friend Jim Hawkins' studio in Athens, Georgia, with a core band of me, Chris Enghauser on stand up bass and Louis Romonos on drums. Steve, my son-in-law and co-producer with me, suggested we invite Danny Barnes to come in. Danny is amazing, and I love his solo work. If you don't know him, you gotta check him out. His latest is called Rocket. Danny is multi-instrumental - plays guitar, banjo, tuba and more. He plays all of that on the record and also sings a duet with me on the Leroy Carr tune Memphis Town and does the lead vocal on Naptown Blues, a Carr song about the city of Indianapolis.

“Steve also suggested getting Col. Bruce Hampton on Got To Go Blues and Candi Staton on a duet with me on Mean Mistreater. Candi does lead vocal on The Blues Is All Wrong. Then I got my old pals Randall Bramblett and Davis Causey on some tracks to round it out. We had so much fun!”

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With Chuck’s mention of Candi Staton, I was reminded of her great gospel work in the 80’s so I asked him to expound on her inclusion on the album.

“We were looking for a ‘female foil’ for me on a couple of songs. We tried to get Susan Tedeschi, but she was busy. Then we tried to get Grace Potter she showed interested, but she was also too busy to get to it. So Steve told me ‘do you remember Candi Staton? She lives near here’. I loved that idea. She had some great R & B hits in the late 60's and early 70's before she turned to mostly gospel, as you note. She came in and just nailed it. I'm booked for the New Orleans Jazz Fest on April 27th, and have secured Bonnie Bramlett to sing with me on the gig. She is great and I can't wait to do that gig. I'm bringing in Danny Barnes as well, and Randall's band will be the core.

Concluding his comments about the actual recording of the album, Leavell adds, “Danny, Candi, Col Bruce, Randall and Davis were all done in Athens . . . but Keith and John were done in NY as noted previously.”

Do any of these tunes generate special memories or have special meaning for Chuck?

“Well, they all throw you back in time. I love the Ray tune, Losing Hand. Classic Ray when he was focusing more on blues than jazz, pop or country as he did later in his career. Pure blues, and he was a master.  I love the Little Brother Montgomery stuff, too, especially Vicksburg Blues, which I do on my own, piano and vocal. It is such a plaintive song and you can just feel the pain he's going through. I've been a Memphis Slim fan for a long time and getting John to play on Wish Me Well was perfect. He killed it. It was all a wonderful journey for me.”

Piggy-backing on this same vein of thought, I asked Leavell if he knew if any of the tunes on the album had special meaning to any of his guest artists.

Sure. Danny and Keith are both very well aware of most of this stuff - especially the Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (guitar) recordings. Danny and I actually talked about doing some Carr/Blackwell stuff a while back, but it didn't happen until I put this together.  A lot of what we unearthed was not known to the players and the guests - even me - until Steve turned me on to them. I'd never heard of Barrel House Buck McFarland, Leona Manning, Jesse James and some of the others.

As I’ve said in other interviews, I quit asking an artist if they had a favorite song on their album – especially if they wrote the tunes themselves.  However, many artists feel that there’s a particular song that serves as a calling card, if you will, for the rest of the album.  When I asked Chuck if he felt there’s such a song on Woods, he replied, “Ouch! That is a tough one, and a bit unfair to ask. It's like picking a favorite child. I guess if you push me to the wall, since Ray Charles is still my hero, I'd point to Losing Hand, but they are all about equal to me.

As to the question of whether he will be supporting the disc with any public performances or touring, in answering it Leavell shared some insight into the recent announcement by John Mayer that he was cancelling his scheduled tour and how that impacted him.

“Well, at present we all know that I was supposed to tour with John Mayer this year. We had put together a fantastic band, and I had worked on his new release, Born and Raised, over the course of the last year. I think it's a wonderful piece of work, and we were all (including John) so looking forward to the tour.

“But then his throat problem, a thing called a granuloma which is kind of like a blister growth in between his vocal chords, returned after his surgery and 4 months of treatment and recovery. We were in LA just in our fourth day of rehearsals - all going so great when he began to struggle. He saw his Dr. that evening and we all got the bad news:  the tour had to be cancelled.

“It was a big blow to all of us, but especially for John. We'll all be fine, and I'm grateful that I got to play on Born and Raised, which is now out and that I got to do Back To The Woods. So yes, I'll be focusing on that now. We're still reeling from the cancellation now and I'm starting to sort out ‘Plan B’. But life goes on, and things will take their natural course. I know we all send love to John and hopes for a full recovery down the road. He's a very special man and a very special talent.

As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Chuck if it was too soon to ask what's next from him in the way of books, CDs (like, maybe, a follow up to Woods?) and/or DVDs.

“I'll do some dates of my own to promote Back, I'll spend some time on MNN business, and I'll be able to do work on Charlane Plantation. I'm also in discussions with a writing partner to do a book about musicians that have played a significant role with a band or artist, but that are little known names. I had the pleasure recently to be in Billy Bob Thornton's next film, Jayne Mansfield's Car. I have two short cameos in it - one where I'm playing in a band at a street party and another in a barber shop where I deliver a line to Robert Duval. It was a real hoot, and I'm grateful to Billy for including me. He's a good friend and a great guy. The film will probably come out in the fall of this year, but no solid release date yet. It's a great script with some fine actors. Billy is in it as well as having co-witten and directed it. Kevin Bacon, John Hurt and others. I'll also start thinking about my next musical project - maybe a country record . . . not sure yet.”

Then, closing with just a bit of a tease, Chuck adds, “And of course there are those Brits that might decide to come out of hiding one of these days. We'll see. One day at a time.”

Now, who do you suppose Chuck would be referring to?

Alvin Lee

Posted August, 2012

 

AlvinLeeWithBigRed6It’s been forty-four years since the Alvin Lee and Ten Years After battalion of the British invasion of the U.S. took place.  In fact, it was forty-three years ago this month that Mr. Lee and the band made their history-making six song performance at the Woodstock festival.  It was there that he famously introduced the bands song, I’m Going Home, by saying, “I’m going home . . . by helicopter”.

Since those days, there have been many tours, bands and albums.  How many albums? Alvin told me, “I honestly don’t know. Twenty or thirty, I guess.”

Whether it’s the 20th or the 30th, Lee’s soon-to-be-released album, Still On The Road To Freedom, delivers the same level of musical excellence that he did when first landed on our shores those many years ago.  It was because of this album that I had the privilege and opportunity to ask Lee a few questions about the album and music in general.  I found it especially interesting that the interview with this rock and roll icon marks the 100th interview for Boomerocity as well as the weekend of the 43rd anniversary of Woodstock.  Neither was planned. It just happened that way.

I mentioned to Alvin that, in the liner notes he wrote that the thirteen songs were taken from a batch of 33 songs he had written since the release of his last album, Saguitar.  I was curious as to what the decision-making process to cull out those great tunes from such a body of work that, undoubtedly, contained equally as great of work.

“It’s a process of evolution. As I work on each track, I will maybe try another vocal, another bass or guitar, maybe change the words - whatever I feel it needs. Some of the tracks improve as I do this, some don’t, and some are best left in their original form so as they evolve it becomes apparent which ones are going somewhere.  Apart from having a good basic song that is saying something, I am looking for a rhythm or feel that inspires me to play interesting solos and fills.”

With so many albums under his belt, I asked Alvin how was this album different for him to record than his first album, Ten Years After, and what is easier and harder now.

“What’s easier now is I just do what I feel and don’t have to explain or justify to anybody what I’m trying to do. The only harder thing is deciding what it is I want to do.  With Ten Years After, it was a story of lies, deceit, clashing egos, and backstabbing but you wouldn’t be interested in that.”

Artists can never (or won’t) pick a favorite song from their work.  It’s always seen almost like a parent picking a favorite child.  I knew that Lee couldn’t pick a favorite song from this album but I asked him if he were to pick one as a “calling card”, if you will, that would sell people on wanting to buy the whole album, which song would he pick?

“I suppose it would be the title track, but I don’t think there is any one track that represents the whole album. It’s all about variation and visiting my influences over the years.”

With a career that spans seven consecutive decades, Alvin has seen and weathered a lot of changes in the music industry.  What have been the biggest changes, positive and negative, in the music business, which he has witnessed?

“From my perspective, I miss the major record companies from the good old days (late 60’s). They used to send limos for you and shower you with gifts and generally show you a good time. That was when there was lots of money flying around and everybody was happy. Also there was an element of adventure.  It was all new and there were no rule book to follow. You had to make them up as you went along.

“FM radio stations used to have one usually stoned out guy doing the whole thing and we would walk in and start playing our favorite records and rapping for hours. These days it’s got so corporate they have administrators and programmers and the DJs can’t even play what they want. It’s all about advertising and making money. Where is the groovy DJ who just plays good music?”

One question I’ve asked many veteran artists is: If you were made the music czar, what would you do to change the business, or would you?  Lee’s answer didn’t surprise me in the least.

“To be honest, I have never been interested in the business side of music. To me, they just don’t mix. I’ve met with Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun and the further I am away from all that the better.”

With the wealth of accomplishments behind him, I wondered what hasn’t Alvin Lee done or accomplished yet that he still would like to do.  His response was short and to the point.

“Go to south India and make an album in Chicago with local musicians.”

Lee has jammed with some of the biggest names in music history. I was curious if there was anyone who he hasn’t jammed with whom he wishes to.

“Not really, I’ve been very lucky and jammed with most of my heroes and great players. I’ve even jammed with Damon Hill. Chuck Berry is someone I’ve never jammed with but it’s often disappointing meeting your heroes and with Chuck it could be damn right dangerous.  They said the same of Jerry Lee, but I got on with him real fine during the London sessions.”

As we were wrapping up our chat, I asked the Woodstock and rock and roll veteran what was up next for him this year and in the next few years.

“I’ve got a few festivals and I’m already writing new material for whatever my next project turns out to be. The songs will lead me in the right direction although I still don’t know where they come from.”

And the next the next five years?

“To continue surprising myself and to write the world’s greatest riff.”

I had time for one more question so I asked Alvin how he hopes to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy will be.

“Who knows? Who cares? I only hope somebody doesn’t make a cheesy movie of what they think was my life with Justin Bieber playing me as a young boy.”

Then, in an ever-so-slightly more serious tone, he added, “Remember me as a guitarist who raised a few eyebrows, that’s good enough.”

You can keep up with Alvin Lee as he “travels the road to freedom” by visiting his website, www.alvinlee.com.  Of course, you’ll want to be sure and catch Alvin live when he appears in  your city so check his website often for tour updates. 

Chuck Leavell Interview 2011

Posted January/February, 2011

chuck trees6The Allman Brothers. Don McLean. Bonnie Bramlett. Marshall Tucker Band. Charlie Daniels. Sea Level. Aretha Franklin. Chuck Berry. Dion. Gov't Mule. The Black Crowes.  Eric Clapton. Larry Carlton. George Harrison. Rolling Stones.

How would you feel if those names were on your resume in some form or fashion?  I can tell you that if my resume had those names, my head would swell to twice the size of Texas.

Chuck Leavell’s resume includes those names and many, many more. When you add to that the credentials of an expert forester, conservationist, author, husband, father, and grandfather and you get an idea of who the man really is.  All of that and, yet, his head retains its normal size and shape.

How does he do it?  I don’t know but my head did swell just a little bit when I had the good fortune of posing a few questions to the legendary keyboardist.  I pursued an interview with Leavell after reading his 2004 book, Between Rock and a Home Place. As a huge Rolling Stones fan, I, of course, knew about of Chuck’s monumental work with the band and with his own band, Sea Level.  I just wasn’t aware of the huge volume of other work he’s associated with.

I was also aware of his conservation work – especially at his beautiful home, the family tree farm known as Charlane Plantation. The plantation, in the family since 1932, was inherited by Chuck’s lovely wife of 37 year, Rose Lane, after the passing of her grandmother.   After working their way out of onerous inheritance taxes, Rose Lane and Chuck have developed a thriving, successful tree farm that also hosts hunting and other kinds of retreats.

It was about Charlane Plantation that I opened the discussion with Leavell, asking about what were the latest developments at the farm.

“We are always working on our place. My wife, Rose Lane, says it means ‘job security’ for me as I will never get done! Currently we have a good bit of maintenance going on. We’ve just started renovating the exterior of our horse barn, the upstairs of which serves as Rose Lane’s art studio. We built the barn some 18 years ago using lumber that was taken from our own trees . . . mostly ones that were dead or dying… and it’s time to polish it up some.

“We also just finished renovating an old tenant house into a nice guesthouse. We’ve built most all of our structures out of our own wood, and most of the renovations we’ve done to our existing structures as well. It’s quite a good and special feeling to look at them, walk through them and say… ‘yeah, that came from our own grounds’ . . . and to think that our grandchildren and future generations will be saying ‘our grandparents (or great-grandparents) built that back in 1990’, or whenever we built or renovated any particular structure on our place.

“Of course, we’re always working in the woods, too. We did some light thinning of a few areas last year that had yet to be chuckandmiles2Chuck Leavell With Grandson, Miles

Courtesy of Chuck Leavellthinned - sort of like weeding the garden. We probably touched on 150 acres or so, opening the stands up to a slightly wider spacing, which will help the trees left standing grow much better and faster. It also helps encourage natural grasses, weeds and legumes to grow better underneath the stands, making it more attractive for wildlife.

“We are in the middle of our hunting season, and January and February are booked pretty solid with our traditional southern quail hunts. I’ve been working some new dogs, which I love doing…so there has been quite a lot going on.”

When I asked if he was the Ted Nugent of Georgia, Chuck’s response polite but direct.

“With all due respect to Nugent, he’s an ethical and expert outdoorsman, but he’s a bit radical for me. I try to take a more gentle and gentlemanly approach to our hunting. As far as what we offer the public, it’s again, the traditional southern quail hunts, from November through the end of February. We have the jeeps, dogs, excellent guides and have a top notch and top class operation. We have several comfortable accommodations. Our lodge was built about 8 years ago, again, with our own resources and we renovated a historic 1830’s home back in the early 90’s that we use as well.

“Rose Lane directs our staff in terms of the food, etc. and we have lots of repeat clients year after year. During the off season, we offer ‘retreats’ from time to time. Since Rose Lane is an excellent artist, some of these are centered around art. But some folks like to come just to be in the country, take a tour, walk our nature trail and such. We enjoy sharing our place and meeting new people, helping them to understand and appreciate nature and conservation issues. It makes for a good balance with our ‘other life’ of rock and roll.”

Leavell wrote in his book, Between Rock and a Home Place, that, because of the predatory nature of our rich Uncle Sam’s inheritance tax code, he and Rose Lane had to sell off a big chunk of the original plantation.  In the seven years since that book was published, I asked if they were able to re-purchase the property.

“No, that property was in another county, about 50 miles from us. It was about 300 acres of land that Rose Lane’s grandfather had passed on down. It was heartbreaking and really hurt to have to sell it, but we didn’t see any other way out at the time. While we’ve never recovered that tract, the good news is that through the years we have been able to acquire more land, much of which was adjacent to us. Rose Lane inherited about 1100 acres back in 1981 and we now have about 2500 acres, 1800 that is contiguous to her inheritance.”

Before shifting my questioning to his other conservation endeavors, I asked Leavell what their long term plans for Charlane were.

“We will continue to manage it as best we know how, and to share it with others through our hunts and retreats. Of course, I would love to continue to expand it, but it’s getting really hard to do because of how expensive land is. While the housing market across America has been hit hard as we all know - and prices for normal housing has dipped - that has not been the case for most timberlands, agricultural lands and recreational lands. It takes a lot of resources to purchase these kinds of lands and to maintain them. But I’m always hopeful that we can find select opportunities. We all know that old phrase, ‘land rich and cash poor’. That applies to a lot of landowners I know. I don’t think anyone would be impressed with our bank account but I’d rather have the land than bits of paper.”

Chuck is a self-taught forestry expert, having begun his studies while touring with The Fabulous Thunderbirds.  Since then, he’s gained much respect and notoriety as an expert in forestry and conservation, having been award many awards and acknowledgements.  He’s also written two books on the subject with a third on the way.

Before venturing into the finer points of this field of his expertise, I swallowed my pride and asked Leavell what the difference was between a conservationist and an environmentalist.

“It’s a good question. I like to think that we are both. The definition of conservation is, in part, ‘The action of conserving something, in particular protection, or restoration of the natural environment, natural ecosystems, vegetation, and wildlife; the preservation, repair, and prevention of deterioration of archaeological, historical, and cultural sites and artifacts; and the prevention of excessive or wasteful use of a resource.

leavellandstones1“In a nutshell, I think it means to be wise and careful with the resources that you have - to practice a sort of sustainability. I tell people that trees are an organic, natural and renewable resource. We all use things that come from trees every day of our lives - wood furniture, our homes, musical instruments, books, and so many other things. As a conservationist, I want to use this resource for these many fine things but I want to make sure that I am doing it in a way that is conserving the resource - that is, in a way that will assure me it will always be there.

“As for the word ‘environmentalist’, the definition in part is: A person who is concerned with or advocates the protection of the environment . . . who considers that environment, as opposed to heredity, has the primary influence on the development of a person or group.

“This can get a bit complicated, and the ‘catch’ is how far you take the second part of the above definition. I certainly care deeply about our environment and want to keep it healthy and vibrant. But when it comes to making certain decisions about what to do with our lands and how that affects us as humans, hard choices have to be made from time to time. We all have to have places to live, to work, for our kids to go to school, etc. So, while it might not be the best thing for our environment to build such structures, or to build more highways, rail systems, expand airports and such, it’s inevitable that we are going to do it. We have to make compromises.

“Actually, this is the subject of my new book, Growing A Better America, that will be out in mid March of this year. It’s about making careful and thoughtful choices about how we are going to grow. We have 310 million people in our country now, and predictions are that we’ll have 400 million around 2040. There are about 6.8 billion on the planet, and predictions are to have 9 billion by 2045. We are going to have to make some critical choices about accommodating that kind of growth, and how that will affect our environment.

“My book talks about ‘smart growth’, and looks at positive models of community design, community expansion and such. I get in to energy issues; transportation issues; keeping our carbon footprint as low as possible; preserving natural areas when possible; the importance of green spaces in our metropolitan areas and much, much more.

“I know that’s a long answer, but I think it’s important that people have an understanding of these things.”

As a direct result of Chuck’s incredible accomplishments in conservation and forestry, he co-founded The Mother Nature Network and serves as its the Director of Environmental Affairs.  When I asked what the latest developments are at MNN, he answers with the same kind of pride as he does when speaking of Charlane or his musical work.

“MNN has been a phenomenal journey for me. My partner, Joel Babbit, had the idea to build the site and asked me to participate. He has had a life long successful career in public relations and advertising, serving really big clients like Coca-Cola, Dell Computer and others. We’ve been friends for a while, and he came to me one day saying that his clients wanted to get out to the public over the Internet all the things they were doing to “green” their businesses. And by the way, these companies and all the companies that are sponsors with MNN are doing some great things in that regard.

“Anyway, Joel did not feel comfortable with any of the existing environmental sites in terms of placing ads and getting messages out on behalf of his clients. After discussing it in depth and doing a lot of research, we looked at each other and sort of said at the same time: ‘should we build it?’ So, we did.

“Through Joel’s connections, we raised commitments of up to ten million dollars to get started. He resigned his position as CEO of GCI, a huge firm he was heading up, and we went to work. We hired really talented and dedicated enviro-journalists, website developers and other staff and opened our offices in Atlanta. We launched in January of 2008 on a wing and a prayer. Since then we have grown from a ranking of something like number 7,200 on the list of environmental websites to be the number one most visited independent environmental site in the world.

“I have to give credit to our incredible staff.  We have really great folks - about 25 at present - working for us. Joel and I are elated with the progress. The last numbers I had are that we are getting over 2 million unique visits a month, and about 12 million page views per month and still climbing each month. We actually became profitable towards the end of last year, which is quite amazing for any website in 2 years time. We thought it would take at least 5 years to get into the black, so we’re thrilled.”

With public discourse often dominated by subjects to protecting and preserving the environment, I asked if there is anything that keeps him awake at night from a conservation perspective.

“There are a lot of things that I’m concerned about. I described some of that in talking about my new book, but in terms of forestry alone, I have many worries. One is that we have seen a great deal of our industry move offshore in the past 10 years or so. This is for many reasons. Like so many other industries, companies find that labor is cheaper in other countries; there is less regulation in other countries; less cost for construction, cheaper land and so forth.

“I’m not suggesting that we should do the same thing some of these countries are doing, because some of their practices are not good for the environment and somewhat suppressive on their labor force. But any way you look at it, it has caused a huge drop in US forestry markets. What people have to understand about this is that to a degree, it’s ‘use it or lose it’. In other words, if folks like me and so many other family forest landowners don’t have a decent market, there is no good reason for us to keep our lands in trees. So when that happens, families begin to sell their lands. They can’t afford to pay the taxes, the upkeep, etc. and they are backed up against a wall. I’m not saying it’s that bad at the moment, but if the markets for wood keep going down it will definitely get that bad.

“Other concerns include that tax structure for forest lands, the uncertainty of biomass and carbon markets, the pressures of growth and development, outbreak of diseases and insects, severe weather events and more.”

Before moving my questions to music related subjects, I asked Leavell what homeowners, or those who don’t even own a home, can do to green up America and the world from a forestry perspective.

“Anyone can plant a tree. There are many programs around the country where they give out trees to people. Plant a tree in your yard, your neighborhood, your school, your church. I also encourage people to conserve. Turn out the lights when not in use, set the thermostat at a reasonable temperature, drive less when you can and walk or bike to work. Talk to your neighbors about keeping your parks in good shape. Consider buying Energy Star appliances when you need to replace your refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, whatever. I give a lot of these and much, much more in Growing A Better America.

Chuck Leavell has played keyboard for the Rolling Stones for almost 30 years. As I said at the beginning of this interview, he has also played with other of the biggest names in rock. What many people may not know is that he has also produced several solo albums and is working on a new solo project. I asked Chuck about the album.

“The working title is Back To The Woods and it is a tribute to pioneering blues piano players from the 30s/40s/50s era. Most of the songs come from artists that are little known: Little Brother Montgomery, Skip James, Leroy Carr, Jesse James and others. I did do a very early Ray Charles track called Losing Hand, and an Otis Spann tune called Boots and Shoes, but those would be the two best-known names.

“I’ve been recording it up in Athens, Georgia, at Jim Hawkins’ studio. Jim was a principal engineer at Capricorn Studios back in the 70’s and actually built Capricorn in part. He has a nice, comfortable space in Athens now. I used Chris Enghauser on stand up bass and Louis Romanos on drums - both live in Athens and are great players. So far I have Danny Barnes (renown banjo player and guitarist), (guitarist) Bruce Hampton and Randall Bramblett (Sea Level, Traffic, Steve Winwood, Levon Helm and Bonnie Raitt, among others) as guest artists, and have some commitments from others, including Keith Richards. I’m about 80% done with it and hope to finish it by March. No release date yet, but probably May or June.

In describing his solo work, Leavell says, “Well, I am first and foremost a piano player. That’s what most of my own CDs center around. I might throw in a bit of Hammond B-3 or Wurlitzer now and again, but it’s mostly piano. In terms of style, I’ve been influenced by a wide range of great players, and I think my style reflects that. You’ll hear tinges of blues, rock, jazz, and country, but hopefully you’ll say ‘that sounds like Chuck’.

“It takes a long time to develop your own sound and style as a player, and hopefully I’ve done that. I don’t think of myself as some ‘master’ player - just an honest one. I do my best to paint pictures with the notes I play - to project emotion, color, and feeling. That’s about the best I can do to describe myself. Perhaps descriptions are best left to others.

Early in his book, Between Rock and a Home Place, Chuck shared how his late mom talked to him about how he played his music, leading him towards how to inject various feelings into the sounds he produced on the piano. When I asked Leavell if he still feels that she still “speaks” to him today in how he plays today, his reply was short, sweet and from the depths of his heart.

"Every day, in every note I play."

From a fan’s perspective, it’s hard for me to think that, with the musical resume that Chuck has, there would be anything left that he hasn’t done musically. However, I had to ask him what he hasn’t done that he would still like to do.

“Fortunately, I’m still getting calls to work with other artists. I still love working with those I’ve worked with in the past, but also like the challenge of working with those I haven’t. Recently I recorded with John Mayer in NY for a week. Fantastic session, fantastic artist. I hope I get another round with John some time this year. Next week I record for about 10 days with Martina McBride. So, I just take it one day at a time and hope the phone keeps ringing! Of course I’ll continue to do my own stuff as well. I know the Stones have been contemplating their options, but they have not come to any final decisions, so we’ll all have to wait on that. I can tell you that I’m ready when they are.”

Later, Chuck said about his contribution to the Mayer disc, “It was mostly Hammond B-3, but I did play a bit of Whurly and a pump organ on a couple of things. John is an amazing talent. He wrote three of the songs we did right on the spot. He’s got tremendous and infectious energy.”

I don’t know what on earth possessed me to do this, but I dropped some names from Chuck’s musical past and asked him to chuck pianoshare what comes to mind regarding his thoughts about the following musical greats:

 Ray Charles: “The MASTER. Probably my main influence.”

 George Harrison: “One of the sweetest guys on the planet. Truly as great a humanitarian as he was a singer/songwriter/performer.”

 Duane Allman: “Changed the direction of the electric guitar with his slide playing. Never got to know him personally, but always admired him and heard him play many times. Unquestioned and unbridled passion in his playing.”

 Eric Clapton: “Well, he’s Eric Clapton, isn’t he?! Eric likes exploring, changing, experimenting and I have always appreciated him for that. He doesn’t rest on his laurels and isn’t afraid to try things.”

 Gregg Allman: “In the top five of the greatest blues singers ever. A good friend. A survivor.”

 Ronnie Wood: “Effervescent, fun, diversely and multi-talented. Made me feel at home when I came into the Stones, for which I’m forever grateful.”

 When asked if there is any talent that is commanding his attention, Leavell shares that, “I’ve been listening a bit to Grace Potter (and the Nocturnals) and like her stuff. Not complicated, but with deep soul.  I like that. I honestly haven’t been to many concerts in the last couple of years, so can’t say much about live performances I’ve heard. I played with Keith Urban on the Jimmy Fallon show, and have come to really admire his artistry. I’m trying to learn a bit of mandolin, and have been listening to some bluegrass players. Love Chris Thele, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush. I don’t listen too much to contemporary radio much these days, so I’m not the best person to ask about hits on radio.”

Since he’s seen a lot of changes in the music business, I asked Chuck what he thought it was going to take to save the business.

“Man, that’s too deep for me to get into, but I will say that if something isn’t done to improve how musicians and artists are paid for downloads and preventing illegal downloads, it’s going to be a tough future. The genie is out of the bottle, and I don’t know if it will ever be back in. We’ve lost a lot of control over how our recorded music is sold.”

Wrapping up my time with Chuck, I asked if we were going to see him on the road with anyone any time soon.  While I wasn’t hinting for some advanced info about a Rolling Stones tour, he does comment about it at the end of his answer: “I have very few select solo shows booked - playing Macon at the Cox Capitol Theater Jan 22nd with the Randall Bramblett Band, and a gig at the Wheeler Opera House on March 12th. Other than that, I’ll be promoting my book and finishing my CD as well as doing the sessions I have booked. Nothing to report at present on Stones activity.”

After the interview was over, I reflected on the vast, rich body of work that Chuck has.  From his iconic keyboard work on the landmark Allman Brothers tune, Jessica, to the Stones, Clapton and many others, I just ran the music through my mind and smiled.  Like the beautiful trees of Charlane Plantation, Chuck Leavell’s work shades our entire musical landscape with the beauty of his work.

You can find out more about Chuck, his music, his books, and his conservation work at the following websites:



www.chuckleavell.com      www.charlane.com      www.mnn.com