Posted January/February, 2011
The 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
thinned - 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.
“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 share 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: