"Music is a language and just as in life it is important to be a good listener. Musical conversations are an amazing thing."
Chuck Leavell: Back to Wonderful World
Chuck Leavell has been pleasing the ears of music fans for more then 30 years. His piano and keyboard work have been heard on the works of Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, The Allman Brothers Band, The Black Crowes, Train... and many other prominent rock artists. His association with the Stones began back in 1982 and is still going strong. He is a first call session musician, often working in Nashville.
Recent recordings there include work with Miranda Lambert, Montgomery-Gentry, Lee Ann Womack, Heidi Newfield, Lady Antebellum and more. Chuck is also an artist in his own right, with several successful solo CDs in circulation…the latest of which is his “Back to the Woods” project, released this year. Also a respected author, he has penned four books. His book on forestry called Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest with translated releases. His recent children’s book, The Tree Farmer, has garnered several awards including special recognitions from the National Arbor Day Foundation and the American Farm Bureau Federation and is in it’s third printing. His autobiography, Between Rock and a Home Place chronicles his career in music and also explains how he came to be so passionate on environmental issues. Chuck's new book is now available! GROWING A BETTER AMERICA: Smart, Strong and Sustainable is hot off the presses. Chuck and his co-writer, J. Marshall Craig have spent the better part of the last two years working on this important read.
Leavell co-founded The Mother Nature Network in January of 2009, and the site made a quick rise to become the world’s première website for environmental news, information and education after only one year. Chuck is a renowned environmentalist and tree farmer, and he and his wife Rose Lane were given the ultimate honor for their outstanding stewardship of their own forest, Charlane Plantation, by being named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999. Leavell sits on several important environmental Boards, including The American Forest Foundation, the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities, The Georgia Land Conservation Council and others. Chuck’s passion for forestry and the environment have elevated him to one of the most respected leaders in the field.
For me, the blues is the foundation of rock and jazz. Both styles owe their heritage to the blues. When you look back at early rock and roll, you see artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others taking blues and gospel and sort of blending them together to come up with their music. Jazz takes the blues into a higher plane…but you still hear the blues in there even with the more sophisticated and even experimental styles. So as far as I’m concerned, most of the music that I play…even some of the country artists and songs…can be traced back to their blues beginnings.
How do you describe CHUCK LEAVELL sound and progress, what is your music philosophy?
Well, I’d say that my style has evolved by blending a number of styles. Certainly the blues, but also gospel, rock, boogie, country and melodic playing. I have always been a fan of players like Nicky Hopkins, and even Joni Mitchell. Nicky was the “master of the motif”…when you hear his playing on songs like “Angie”, “Waiting on a Friend” and the like, you hear these wonderful little vignettes of melodies that to me are so pleasing to the ear, and that fit so well into those songs. I love Joni Mitchell’s piano playing on her records…very adventurous and melodic. So I try to make whatever I am playing fit nicely into the particular song…I try to do what the song is asking me to do.
Why did you think that CHUCK LEAVELL continues to generate such a devoted following?
Well, it’s nice of you to say that…but let’s be real…I don’t have a huge name like Sting, The Rolling Stones, U2, Madonna…or other such artists. But I hope that what I do comes off as honest, real and heartfelt. I do my best to be sincere in all the projects I get to work on.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
In preparation for “Back To The Woods”, I listened to probably 150 or so songs by maybe 30 or so artists. It was a real education for me. I mean, I’ve always listened and borrowed from players like Otis Spann, Memphis Slim, Ray Charles and the like. And of course the great New Orleans players like Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr. John, and Allan Toussaint. Then there are the boogie players…Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons. But in researching for this project, I became more familiar with players like Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Charlie Spand. It was a wonderful journey for me.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Oh, man…there have been so many wonderful moments…recording the “Brothers and Sisters” record with the Allman Brothers…playing with them at the Watkins Glen concert in ’73 where we had over 600,000 people attending. With the Stones, on The Bigger Bang tour we played in Rio de Janeiro to a million and a half people. We played in Prague back in ’90 just after the Wall fell to over 120,000 people. There was this amazing feeling of Freedom in Prague at the time. Doing the “Unplugged” record with Eric Clapton was pretty cool, and playing with George Harrison on his last tour. As for worst….sorry, I can’t think of one!
What I miss most is the musical activity that used to occur in the city of Macon. We had it all going on…great studio, record company, booking agency….lots of good players and artists living in Macon or coming through town. Now all of that is gone and there are very few of us living in the area that were there back then. Paul Hornsby is still here and has a small studio, and I do work there sometimes…but other than that, it’s a bit like a ghost town as far as music and musical activity is concerned. Most of the work I do these days is in New York, Nashville, LA. I do get a bit of work in Atlanta and Athens, Ga. But what we once had in Macon has been gone a long time now.
What the difference and similarity between the BLUES, JAZZ, and SOUTHERN ROCK feeling?
I think I have addressed that in one of your earlier questions….in the Allman Brothers Band music, it all blends together. That’s what made our sound so unique.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Oh, I’d say right now! I have recently worked with John Mayer, who is a great guy and amazing artist…Martina McBride, a wonderful country artist, my new record “Back To The Woods” has just come out, my conservation work keeps me busy and my latest book, “Growing A Better America” is doing well. I recently received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award and an Honorary Ranger Award in the same month. Our place, Charlane Plantation is looking great and I love working on it, and our environmental website, The Mother Nature Network is getting over 5 million visits a month now and is growing. Rose Lane and I celebrate our 39th anniversary this year and our two daughters are doing well and we have two wonderful grandsons…so life has never been better for me than it is now.
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
In many ways. I have seen so many different recorded formats in my career…from the old vinyl LPs and 45s to cassette and 8 track tapes to CDs and now into the digital download domain. I think we’re moving fast into the next phase, which is services like Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody and the “Cloud” based systems where you don’t really own any musical formats, but rather subscribe to these huge catalogs and can get just about any artist’s work whenever and wherever you want. I suppose it is a good thing for the consumer, but it has been a bad thing for the artists and songwriters, as the revenue streams have been cut drastically. In terms of style, we’ve seen the advent of hip hop and rap, which didn’t exist when I was starting out and are now pretty much dominating the airways. Technology has had a profound effect on the music business…in so many ways. From the available instruments to sampling and physical modeling to the recording process and the delivery of the music. But there is no going back, and we just have to ride the wave of change.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
I believe so many people that want to get in the game don’t understand the value of good old-fashioned practice. Leaning to play and hopefully master an instrument. I’m not against the new technologies available, but I do think that in so many ways they are taking the talent and value of being an accomplished musician out of the picture. I think that is in essence taking us backwards to a degree, and I would advise young folks coming up to take the time to learn the nuances of their instrument or instruments. And I would say not to be afraid to experiment and try different ideas with their instruments. Finally…learn to listen well. Music is a language and just as in life it is important to be a good listener. Musical conversations are an amazing thing.
Are there any memories from Allman Brothers, which you’d like to share with us?
I mentioned the making of “Brothers and Sisters” and the Watkins Glen experience. But there are many more….we were doing stadium shows back in the early 70’s….I remember playing in Atlanta, Ga…which is just up the road from Macon, where we were living, to over 60,000 people at the stadium there. We played so many shows like that all over, from New York to California and about every point in-between…it was a great time. We had our own private plane, The Starship. My wife and I had our first daughter, Amy, and we took her all around the US with us on tour. We made other good records during that period….Gregg Allman’s first solo record, “Laid Back” and I also played on Dickey Betts’ first solo record, “Highway Call”. Those were golden years and wonderful times.
Which memory from Sea Level makes you smile?
We had a good run with Sea Level. Five years and five records. As you know, the personnel changed as time went on. In the first formation, it was just a four piece. Jaimoe on drums, Lamar Williams on bass, Jimmy Nalls on guitar and me. But from the second record on, we added Randall Bramblett (keys, vocals and sax) and Davis Causey (guitar). The drummers changed…George Weaver was on the second record and Joe English was on the third through the last one. We had some great gigs…from opening for some big acts to playing upscale clubs and theaters. We did a lot of college and university dates that I remember well and we were always well received. I recall a couple of theater shows we did with the great keyboard player, Jan Hammer….those certainly make me smile.
And would you like to tell your best memory about Rolling Stones?
I mentioned some earlier….but again, there are many. I really enjoyed the Forty Licks tour in which we played stadiums, arenas and theaters. Some of the theater dates were really great, like the Palladium in LA with Solomon Burke opening up for us and him sitting in on our set. The Olympia Theater in Paris, the Paradisio in Amsterdam, Roseland in New York…all fantastic shows.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD MUSICIAN and WRITER?
Sometimes when I’m on that horse or on that tractor, melodies and musical ideas take shape. But inspiration can take place anywhere, any time. You might be inspired by a phrase someone says, by something you see, by sounds. That’s the great thing about what we do. As for strong musicianship…I still practice a good bit. When I know I have some kind of event coming up…shows, recording, rehearsals, whatever….I usually start at least a week before doing technical exercises, improvising and just getting myself in shape. It is very much like an athlete that has a game coming up, or a contest. You don’t just get out there on the track and run without preparing. Remember the 5 P’s….”Proper preparation prevents poor performance”. I don’t know if that translates well into Italian, but it is a creed I try to live by.
How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
First, I have to be sure that I’m doing the best I can do…making sure that I’m on top of my game….as long as that is the case, then I can occasionally look out and find individual connections in the audience…and I like engaging the audience from time to time…get them to sing along, clap their hands, give out a unison shout, whatever. If it is all done right, then the result is that we are all in the game together….all on the same side.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
Again, the Blues is the basis for rock and jazz. It’s like the foundation of the house….and the blues was built on a solid foundation. It can withstand any kind of storm and will always hold the house together.
What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?
Don’t ever leave your wallet in the dressing room. And he was right!
Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? Happiness is…
I am first and formost passionate about my family...spending time with the family gives me great joy. But I am also passionate about my work in forestry and conservation. A great day for me is being up on my tractor, or doing some kind of physical activity in the woods....pruning trees, clearing roads, planting trees. We have horses, and I love riding them through our woods. It is the best way to tour our land. You are up high so you can see far, and you are traveling very quietly. You see lots of deer, turkey, quail and other wildlife that way.
You had pretty interesting books. Where did you get that idea? Tell me a few things about your writing progress
The books come because I feel like I have something to say about a certain subject matter, or that I have stories to tell (in the case of my autobiography). My last book, “Growing A Better America” is all about smart growth. Last year we saw the birth of the 7 billionth person on the planet. This constitutes a huge amount of stress and pressure on our natural lands, our natural resources and ourselves. So I wanted to put forth some ideas about how we can handle that stress and pressure…because the truth is that we can’t stop it…but we CAN guide it and find ways to deal with it. Concepts like Biomimicry (the study of nature to find better ways for us to live) and Industrial Symbiosis (the art of using what would otherwise be wasted energy and putting it to good use) are just a couple of the things I write about. As far as the process, I usually do my writing very early in the morning…maybe around 5am for two or three hours…then do other stuff the rest of the day. I enjoy writing and will no doubt continue doing it. I’m working with a writing partner now on an idea bout a book about the “Unsung Heroes of Music”. Doing interviews with musicians that have played a strong role perhaps for a solo artist, or maybe on a particular recording, but that hardly anyone really knows what role they play. I think it is a neat idea and look forward to getting deeper into it.
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