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Published: 2012/09/14
by Mike Greenhaus

Chuck Leavell Heads Back to the Woods with Keith Richards and John Mayer

Of course, you also play with The Rolling Stones. I heard you guys got together in New Jersey to rehearse earlier this year and are planning to do some shows in the coming months. How did those rehearsals go?

CL: It was so great. It’s been five years. I’ve seen the guys—I saw all the guys at the Exile on Main Street movie premiere in New York. I was there working with John and they had put this documentary together to celebrate the re-release of Exile, and so it was great to see everybody at the time. We stay in touch, not on a regular basis, but we do stay in touch. It has literally been five years since we were last in a room together with our instruments making music.

I was anxious to do it, and I was so glad to get the call. I was so pleased to know that they were at least thinking about doing something. It was a great exercise, you know? [Touring Stones bassist] Darryl Jones was only there for two days because he had an obligation to some Oz Noy dates in Europe, but he did come in for the first two days and sounded great. [Producer] Don Was stepped in to substitute on bass for the remaining three days that we had. It was wonderful that it was just the core band—it was a nice setting. The room was big enough to be comfortable but not so big to feel alienated from each other. All the tunes came back. They’re in our DNA at this point. I didn’t exactly keep an accurate count, but we must’ve played 50-60 different songs. It was working, man. That’s all I can tell you. It was great. As I understand it, I’m sure you saw the press, where they went to the Marquee Club in London and announced the book they’re putting out to celebrate 50 years. As I understand it, there are meetings going on as we speak and that there might be announcements forthcoming. I actually saw somebody on television this morning talking about entertainment in general, and they got around to The Rolling Stones and he said that there was supposedly an announcement to be made this week, so we’ll see about that.

You mentioned the Mother Nature Network. Could you give us a little information on that?

CL: I’ve been a tree farmer for over 30 years—35 years now. My wife and I live on our tree farm in central Georgia, and I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m deeply committed to environmental concerns, and I love that life. I’ve gone to Washington D.C. and testified on the last two farm bills concerning forestry issues and forest policy. I engage strongly in the state of Georgia with the legislature there on forest policy and the various governors that have been in place over the years. I sit on a couple of boards that have a pretty big influence in forestry matters. However, it goes beyond forestry for me into general environmental concerns; I think we all realize the reality of global climate change, I think we’ve seen it. A report came out recently that the last 12 months have been the hottest on record for this country. These are real concerns for me, and I think everybody. Getting to the Mother Nature Network, my friend Joel Babbit, who has had a stellar career in PR and advertising representing very large companies. He’s built two of his own companies up through the years and sold them to larger companies in the process. Joel and I have been social friends for a while and he called me up one day and said, “I wish you’d come to my office, I want to sell you something.” So I go to his office and he says, “Ya know, I’ve got these really heavy clients like Coca Cola and Dell Computers and big name companies that are making changes in the way they’re running their factories; they really want to be more eco friendly. And they want to get these messages out about what they’re doing on the internet.” He said, “Listen I don’t have any problem knowing where to put something in print or on radio or even on television, but the internet is such a big deal these days and everybody goes to it to get information. I’ve been doing some research and I’ve been going to these environmental sites, and I’d like your opinion on it.” And I said, “Joel, I know most of those sites out there and I don’t think there’s anything that’s iconic. There’s a lot of Mom and Pop sites, well intentioned, but fairly shallow.”

There are a lot of organizational sites like Sierra Club and River Keepers, but they’re focused on one part of the environment, and they’re looking for membership and donations. There are governmental sites—they’re very accurate but terribly written and terribly presented. It’s basically an Excel sheet when you go to get some information. And he said, “How do you feel about building one?” and I said “Are you serious?” He said, “Chuck, if you go in with me on this, I will resign my position and I believe I can get the backing.” So I said I’d do it if he were up for it. And in 72 hours, Joel had a commitment of up to 10 million dollars to build this thing, which just blew my mind. Obviously, we had to take a little time to phase out his position—it took him 4-6 months—and within that time period we began to hire some people and got some offices together and talking about what we want the site to look like. Here are a few parameters of what we wanted the site to look like: number one is that it covers all aspects of the environment, it’s not just about water issues or air issues or whatever it might be.

We wanted to cover everything and our model from the beginning was WebMD. When you have a problem with your back or your ankle, you go to Google and get on WebMD. When people get on Google and search for recycling or hybrid cars, we want to be the number one thing that comes up there. And another thing, we wanted it to be non-political. We did not want to have a political slant, this is just about the environment period. The environment doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, does it? It’s something that we all should be concerned with. So that was another issue. The third thing was that we knew it had to be presented in an engaging way. And so, we did not want these pop up ads and banners and flashing things. One minute it’s Coke, the next it’s Pepsi, and whatever. We didn’t want these distracting things. We wanted people to be able to go navigate this thing and we want it to be well designed and look really good.

Along those lines, we came up with a really unique model. We don’t sell advertising the way everybody else does. We sell one category to one sponsor for a year. In other words, when you go to technology and communications, AT&T has the same space there. If you go to freight, the sole advertiser there is CSX. And of course everybody gets space on the home page at the bottom. In our eyes, it’s not so much advertising as it is communications. We give each sponsor five video boxes, and we produce videos for them if they want, and it gives them direct communications to the visitors. The first box might be their CEO talking about the different green initiatives that the company has. The second one might be what they’ve actually done in their factories to save energy. The third might be employee appreciation celebrating an employee that has done good work for the environment, and so on. It’s a very unique presentation in that regard, there’s no other site like us. Of course, we had no idea what the chances were gonna be of it working. We are for profit, so obviously we want to make the investors their money back in the long run. Do well while doing good.

So that has been the case and it’s been about three years now since we launched in January of ‘09. We’ve vacillated between third and fourth of the most viewed environmental sites in the world—which is very strong—getting over 5.5 million visits per month; that is phenomenal at this juncture. We have tons of content, and we do 85-90% of our own content. We have our own bloggers, we find our own stories. You take the BP Oil Spill, of course we aggregated some of the information out there on that and certain other events that may have taken place, but we do 85-90% of our own content which I think is great. Our staff consists of really dedicated eco-journalists; they are people who care about these issues. They are young people that understand the technology and know what the attitude of young folks out there is. That’s the story.

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