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Chuck Leavell: Forever Green, Forever Blue

When I interviewed Chuck Leavell, it took place around Earth Day. That time period seemed most appropriate for a musician who has not only made his living playing on assorted wooden keyboards but also, over the past two decades with his wife Rose Lane, owned and operated Charlane Plantation, a 2,200 acre award-winning forest plantation and hunting preserve near Macon, Georgia. Besides wildlife, its fields contain southern yellow pine, assorted oaks, elms and other hardwoods.

Growing up near blues clubs, Leavell regularly watched legends such as bottleneck guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell. Listening to the phrasing styles of Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and others also left an indelible mark on his playing style. Based on a career that has spanned 30 years and includes stints with the Allman Brothers Band, the Rolling Stones and Sea Level plus sessions and/or live dates with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Sheryl Crow, Widespread Panic, Gov't Mule, the Black Crowes, the Indigo Girls, Rod Stewart and many more, the keyboardist has found a long list of artists who comfortably rely on his skills.

Several weeks after our initial phone conversation, Leavell was called upon by the Rolling Stones for the recording of several new songs to be included on a two-disc career retrospective and for the band’s upcoming 30-date North American tour which begins Sept. 5 and will extend into dates around the world next year.

In an email sent to me just before he left for recording sessions in Paris, Leavell wrote, “Word is that Keith has some great riffs and that Mick has strong material, too…and the idea is to just get us into a room and lock the door and make some great tracks. No tricks, just straight ahead solid rock 'n roll.

“The rehearsals will begin in late July, and my goal will be to try to get the guys to work up some rare jewels so we can expand the setlist and be able to mix it up on tour. As you may have noted from the announcement, there will be a variety of venues…stadiums, arenas, theaters and clubs. I want to be able to have the right material for the right setting. This is a great opportunity for the band…to show the world that the Rolling Stones still set the pace for rock 'n roll. I think that the energy and the spirit is there to do that, and I can't wait to get started!”

While he still maintains an active musical career, Leavell has developed a passion for matters outside of music. Rose Lane inherited her grandmother's land, which became Charlane Plantation. He's been nationally recognized for his work there and, over the years, has received numerous awards for his contributions to conservation. For more information, go to www.charlane.com or www.chuckleavell.com.

Leavell’s enthusiasm for the proper use and non-use of our nation's forest led him to pen Forever Green, about forest management’s past, present and future. He also recorded a disc of solo piano works, Forever Blue, to coincide with the book.

At the conclusion of the interview, Leavell made sure to get this in. "One phrase that I like to use pretty much puts it all in a short sentence or phrase, 'Wood is good.'"

JPG: First off, I wanted to first get your feelings on the subject of Earth Day.

Chuck Leavell: I think it's wonderful that our country has decided that there would be a date we would pick out for all of us to celebrate the earth and all the abundance of things that come from it; to remind us how important it is for us to be sensitive to our management practices, whether it's agricultural or whether it's civil and cultural. It has to do with preservation with rivers, streams, lakes, wildlife, all of the above. I think it's absolutely a wonderful thing we select a day.

But to me every day is Earth Day. Every day that I wake up on this place, if I'm not our tour and I'm working, I'm out the door as soon as I can reasonably get out. I'm walking this place or riding this place, looking for signs of things that need improvement. For people like myself that live on their land and that are directly connected to it each and every day it's the same feeling. I'm equally as passionate about Earth Day as I am about playing the piano for whomever it might be.

JPG: You’ve been involved with forest management at Charlane Plantation for over 20 years. How does an in-demand keyboardist move from the music world to this one?

CL: First of all, it has to do with family heritage. My wife's family, there is a tradition and a heritage of being good stewards of the land, tending the land, of working the land, having the benefits and pressures of nature in your life. That's a heavy thing. If you are given the opportunity to carry on that tradition, to carry on that heritage, certainly I think most people would say, 'Well geez, it's my turn. Let me step up to the plate and figure this out.'

In my case, I had little or no experience in land management. I had to go through a heck of a learning curve to get to a place that I felt like I would be able to do any good. I found it fascinating. I certainly felt a connection to it not only because I was married to the woman that inherited this property, but because we all have a connection to the land in some way.

As a child, I lived in Montgomery, Alabama for a while with my parents. We had a little eight-acre place. We had horses. We had a large garden. I can remember my father plowing the garden with the horses. I remember the chores involved as a kid that goes around with that style of living. I also remember playing in the creek with my sister, just remember the country and how beautiful it was and how dark the sky was at night and how bright the stars were. All those things I think fit into my psyche.

When this situation came along and we began to have to deal with it and began to stay in the country here at the house, it was reborn within me.

This journey that I've been on intrigues me. The more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn, the way biodiversity and ecology fit together. And let's remember that man is part of this equation. So many people think, 'Let's just leave nature to nature.' No, because we are nature. We're living breathing human beings. We have a very strong connection to nature. We've had a connection to nature since the beginning of time. I think all of these things have affected me profoundly through the 20 years we've been doing this.

JPG: You called your book Forever Green. Why did you call its musical companion piece Forever Blue? Would you say that despite the diversity of styles and artists you’ve worked with, your playing’s always grounded in the blues?

CL: You've nailed it. I have been so fortunate to play with all these different bands in different styles; everything from country music to rock and roll to boogie woogie to jazz influenced things and hybrids of all of the above. But no matter what style I'm playing, there is always a thread of blues. It's the engine that makes me go wherever it is I'm going. That's when the title hit me. I said 'Gee, I'm a blues player.' No matter what, I'm a blues player, so what better title than Forever Blue.

JPG: You’ve played with a diverse and lengthy list of top musicians during your career. What is it that you bring to the proceedings that have made you so popular among such an elite crowd?

CL: It's all about the song, what's best for the song. That's my mantra. What's my playing going to contribute to this song and make it better? I try to keep that in my head and in my heart with everybody I play with.

JPG: Last fall you went on a month-long tour with Gov’t Mule. It was your third go-round with Warren and Matt.

CL: You know what? I felt like they're back on their feet. Warren sounded great. They've got the record out (Deep End Vol. 1). Now it just kind of carries forward and be whatever it wants to be.

I can't speak for Warren, but it seems to me, and I think this is very wise if it is his thought, that he wants it to be somewhat evolving and ever changing. It's him and Matt. They're the anchor. That's Gov’t Mule. The bass player can change. It can be Dave Schools. It can be Oteil Burbridge. We did those shows where Les Claypool was there, Jack Cassady and Tony Levin and all those guys onstage with us.

That's one thing, and I think the other instruments like keyboards can evolve as well. He's got Danny Louis out now and he's had Rob Barracco. I think that's as it should be. I can't commit to Gov't Mule nor do I really want to. Nor do I think Warren would want to commit to me and say, 'We'd like for you to be in the band.' That's not what either one of us really wants. We like the interaction. We like the friendship and I think, hopefully and probably, there will be things in the future that we may do together.

JPG: When you did those shows, it made me think that, based on your history with the Allman Brothers and Sea Level, that you came back into the fold, so to speak.

CL: I can't tell you how marvelous it was! I cannot tell you how encouraging and fun and wonderful it was to have people, even when I did the Beacon Theater shows to say, 'Man, we've been waiting for this for years. God, it was so great to hear you play "Jessica."' or 'It was so great to hear you play on the new material.' It was that new song, "Desdemona." I just got so many good vibes and feelings from people that would make those comments, that were happy to see me, as you say, back in the fold a little bit.

Interacting with all of those guys, Warren and the Brothers…also let me quickly mention Widespread Panic. We've been friends for years and years and years. I used to have a place in South Carolina. They came up there, gosh, I'm guessing this was 12 years ago. They played a gig and invited me to sit in. I did. Then, they had a day to kill. I said, 'Come to my place.' They did. So we've been friends for years and they've periodically invited me up.

That also gives me some exposure in that world and gives me an opportunity to play with who I think are great musicians, great bands. More than anything, the joy I get from it is the comments from the fans and how appreciative they are that I don't want to just let that music go. I love that music. It's part of me. It's part of what I'm all about. To be able to continue some type of relationship, with these different bands is wonderful.

JPG: Over the past decade, you’ve worked a lot with the Rolling Stones (seven albums, five world tours and another tour this year), what is their reaction or the reaction of your peers to your work passionate interest in forest management?

CL: Most of the time I get accolades and applause from the people that I work with. They find it intriguing. Sometimes they scratch their heads like in the case of the Stones. 'What do you do out there?'

I remember Ian Stewart. (Stewart was the Stones original keyboardist who passed away in 1985). I was telling Stu about it. He said, 'How much land do you have?' At the time it was 1,200 acres. I said, 'Well Stu, it's 1,200 acres.' He said, 'Hmm…I bet it'd make a lovely golf course.' (laughs)

All of us musicians, we have this connection to the earth and to land and to nature. All of them have a certain degree of respect for what I do. Some of them look at it with some trepidation because artists tend to err on the side of preservation rather than conservation and I would like to think that I had educated a few of them along the way, especially the ones that have been able to come out here and see what we do.

JPG: Since you brought up those two words, what is your definitions and feelings of conservation versus preservation?

CL: Conservation is wise use. Preservation is don't touch. Well, we'll quit making newspapers for you to write in and magazines and we'll quit making books for us to read. We'll build all our houses out of steel, which causes a lot more pollution. Preservation would mean, don't ever cut a tree. That's just so wrong. This is the best resource to use.

Let me mention this. A lot of people say, 'Wouldn't it be better to use a wood substitute?' 'What are you going to use?' 'Well, aren't they making aluminum studs? Steel studs and that sort of thing?' Yes, but do you know how much more pollution it causes? How much more energy it takes to create that product than it does to make something that grows out of the ground naturally? The difference is incredible. Like 10 times.'

Here we are talking about pollution. These trees are converting carbon dioxide to useful oxygen. That's what we ought to be using in construction. Something that we can grow back and is not going to cause pollution to create. There's a lot of misguided arguments and thoughts. I very much enjoy reminding people this is an organic substance.

JPG: In the book you mention about the organization Future Forests (www.futureforests.com) and how its creator works at maintaining "carbon neutral" by planting trees in urban areas.

CL: There are 280 million people in this country. Over six billion people on this planet. That number is not getting smaller. If we're going to have a bigger population, we're going to have to figure some things out. One of the things we're going to have to figure out is how do we integrate nature into our communities and cities and so on and so forth? It is so vital, so important, that we look at those issues, energy issues, like how much energy we can save by having buildings within cities that are shaded. Green spaces that contribute to oxygen conversion from carbon dioxide. Spaces for the songbirds to live and so on and so forth. These are vital, vital issues.

So, there's a whole other world of trees other than the aspect of forestry in terms of growing wood for use. Believe me, I am a big proponent of looking at that and being careful to integrate that into our society.

JPG: Again, in the book you mention that clear cutting areas can be a positive only if its purpose it to take out weak forests and replant. You make a point that the real problem is all the concrete structures, strip mall, etc. going up.

CL: That's a big part of the answer. In reality, it has EVERYTHING to do with forestry, because, you know what we lose in the Atlanta area? We lose something like 500 acres a week, a WEEK (!) to urban sprawl construction. That's a tremendous amount of loss. That's deforestation. A lot of people say, 'I saw a clear-cut the other day. They deforested it.' No, they may have clearcutted, that's true. Probably the intention is to go back in and re-plant and grow another cycle of trees. Deforestation is urban sprawl. That's where you're not going to plant a tree in that asphalt anymore.

JPG: In Forever Green and during this interview you make levelheaded arguments about the situation, holding business and environmental interests accountable.

CL: It's thinking outside the box a little bit. It's reality. Look, everybody's got to have a place to live. Everybody's got to have a place to work. I'm not saying don't build. If we're going to continue this population trend, even though it may have slowed some, it's still growing. We want families to live comfortably and have opportunities and all those things. Of course we do.

Again, there's wiser and better ways to do it. It's just like how we manage our forest. How we use some of it for preservation. Let's have some areas that we just keep for nature walks. Let's have some areas that we plant for production. There's different species. Let's make sure we've got enough spruce fir and hardwoods and so on.

The same way that we manager our forests, we need to be managing our urban sprawl. Let's take some of these areas and renovate them and rebuild them. Using a metaphor, replant. By the time a building's ended its usefulness, rather then let it sit there and go to waste and build another one down the road, let's renovate 'em. In the process, you would see so many opportunities for historic preservation. That's something my wife is very passionate about. I think it is equally as important for preserving the redwood forest as it is to preserve historic buildings.
JPG: Speaking of redwood forest, that seems to be where environmentalists make their strongest points, when the media shows old-growth redwoods about to be cut down by logging companies.

CL: There's certainly rogues out there in the world of forestry. Unfortunately, they do get the attention rather than the American Tree Farm System, 65,000 people out there doing the right thing by the land. That doesn't get any publicity. What gets publicity is a wildfire or some disreputable logger.

The thing is through the experiences that we've had in the last, shall we say, 40 years, we've implemented so many safeguards and so many good things like logger training programs that focus on good sound, clean harvesting activities; how teach loggers to do the right thing.

A lot of the loggers already know how to do the right thing. But If we have some rogues out there, some that may need more education fine, let's address it head on and let's solve the problem.

Like anything else, we're constantly learning. We're constantly trying to improve. In my opinion, we have done that. We have learned so much and we have come so far.

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