Middle Georgian Chuck Leavell is widely considered the greatest rock ’n’ roll pianist of his generation.
He was 20 years old when he joined The Allman Brothers Band and played the iconic solo on “Jessica” on the group’s breakthrough Brothers and Sisters album. His piano also fueled Gregg Allman’s signature album, Laid Back, and as well as Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning Unplugged DVD and album.
Leavell has spent the past 40 years as a mainstay in The Rolling Stones, and evolved into the band’s music director a few decades back.
In addition to his musical heritage, Leavell is probably the most famous tree farmer in America. He and his wife, Rose Lane, own the Charlane Woodlands and Preserve south of Macon, and Leavell was named one of the National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999. He is the author of Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest and the children’s book The Tree Farmer. He also hosts Georgia Public Broadcasting’s America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell.
Leavell is a frequent presence in Atlanta. He has recorded with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Indigo Girls, the Black Crowes, Tinsley Ellis and Michelle Malone. In 2014, he anchored the “All My Friends” concert at the Fox Theatre that honored Gregg Allman. That same year, he brought together an all-star concert at Symphony Hall, featuring Allman, that celebrated Georgia music.
Ahead of the Stones’ concert Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Leavell spoke with ArtsATL about his time with “the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band,” the importance of trees and preserving our environment, and the impact of the recent death of Charlie Watts.
ArtsATL: After having to cancel touring more than a year and half ago because of Covid, how does it feel to be back on tour with the Rolling Stones?
Chuck Leavell: We’ve got this train rolling pretty well down the track and we’re pleased about that — especially after a year and a half of postponements and all these crazy changes, and, of course, losing Charlie (Watts).
ArtsATL: Charlie passed just prior to the tour beginning. What headspace did that create going into this?
Leavell: We didn’t expect to lose Charlie. That was a huge shock. Of course, we knew he was ill, and had been in the hospital and had procedures. The doctors all said he could not do this tour, but that he’d likely recover fully in time. So that’s what we were all going on. Then, as we were just beginning rehearsals for the tour, Charlie passed away. It just hurt everyone — including Steve Jordan (the drummer filling in for Watts).
ArtsATL: What has it been like to be on this tour without Charlie Watts?
Leavell: Though Charlie had given Steve his blessing for the tour, that element — the grief factor — was hard. But Charlie Watts would never want to be the reason this band stopped. So when we were ready to hitch our pants up and get into rehearsal and play, we had our friend on our minds, but we had to focus on Steve and how to adjust to him and he to us. So as we’d go in every day and play for six hours, that became very healing and very enjoyable and fun. We realized what a blessing it was that we were able to get back out with all the obstacles.
And Steve began to inspire us with his take on things — it really became a joyous thing. We did a private show, which was great and served as a warm-up. But when we took that stage in St. Louis and walked out in front of 40,000 people, something we hadn’t seen in almost two years, it was comforting, exciting, invigorating. And to see the joy you’re bringing to the fans and at the same time bringing elegance and proper homage to Charlie is very special. We carry on and celebrate him on this tour. I think it’s been the way it’s supposed to work out.
ArtsATL: Do you have a special remembrance of Charlie or a special story you’d like to share?
Leavell: Charlie was very much a jazz artist. So sometimes with rock ’n’ roll, he might have trouble with the transitions from Part A to B and so forth. So he depended on me quite a bit for direction. He’d be looking to me every night and I had certain hand signals I’d give him. We had little nods and little smiles between us and I just really miss that. And, I have to say, I also miss his style. He was the most elegantly dressed man on the face of the earth. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to be wearing — loved to see what suit he’d be in for special events.
One more little story I love about Charlie Watts was, many years ago, we were in Spain doing a European tour. Rose Lane and I got up rather early and went out to explore. And Charlie was coming back into the hotel as we were leaving. Of course he’s immaculately dressed, had on a perfectly tailored suit. And I said, “Charlie, hey man, where ya been? It’s pretty early.” And he smiled and said, “I was taking my new shoes for a walk.”
ArtsATL: Complete the sentence: When Chuck Leavell takes the stage, he . . .
Leavell: He focuses on the business at hand and has the time of his life.
ArtsATL: Do you have a favorite Stones song to perform?
Leavell: That’s like choosing your favorite child, but I’d say, “Honky Tonk Women,” because I remember where I was when I first heard the song. I was in a little band in Nashville. We were renting a house and the guitar player came in all excited and said, “I got it, I got it. I was driving down the road and the new Stones’ song came on. I immediately pulled over to the record store and got the new album with the song ‘Honky Tonk Women.’” And we sat and listened to that thing 30 times. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I’d later be playing that song over a thousand times with the Rolling Stones.
ArtsATL: At the ripe old age of 20, you found yourself as a new member playing with the Allman Brothers Band. How do you think those four years with ABB helped shape the musician you are today?
Leavell: Those were some very formative years for me. They provided me very strong opportunities — which gave me the chance to hone in on the skills to listen — and those skills have served me well. So those four years were extremely important and were absolute stepping stones for me in everything to follow.
ArtsATL: What exactly do you mean by skills to listen?
Leavell: Well, my dad taught me the importance of what it means to be a good listener. So I learned to listen to what the producer is wanting, what the band is doing, and what the song is saying.
ArtsATL: Around this same time, you and your wife, Rose Lane, became the stewards of her family’s plantation, Charlane Plantation. Did your love of nature and desire to protect the environment always exist, or do you feel the exposure to the plantation sparked it?
Leavell: As a young person, I never really dove deep into the environment or environmental issues, but I was a child of the ’60s and I was aware of what was going on with pollution. You saw a lot of smoke stacks in the ’60s and early ’70s, with a lot of things spewing out of them. So, it was about this time that my awareness became greater and greater. But it wasn’t until Rose Lane and I married and I was exposed to her family’s property that I really got involved. Her brother was a big influence on me in this regard because he was – and still is – a bona fide farmer. He and I are about the same age. And, when I began to spend time with the family and drive around the farm with them and see the passion they had for the work they were doing, that certainly started the spark.
Then, when Miss Julie — Rose Lane’s grandmother — passed in ’81, we woke up one morning going, “Wow! This is our responsibility now. This is no joke here. This is very important.” And we knew we wanted to hold onto and do something good with it even though we didn’t know what that something was yet. That led me on a journey of studying. I went to the library, studying land use. We looked into everything: pecan trees, peach trees, farming. But all of those things were going to be too much on a day-to-day basis if I was going to also have a music career, which I also still wanted. But forestry takes a long time.
ArtsATL: Is that why you chose forestry?
Leavell: Yes, and because trees are so good for the land, for the wildlife, for the environment and because of the musical connection with regards to the question, “Where does my instrument come from?” With all that, I said to myself, “Chuck, you need to be a forester.” The more I studied and read, the more enamored I began to become with trees and how important they are. And we began to pursue sustainability and what that means and began to employ those practices on our land. When those practices led to us receiving a little acknowledgement, that actually led us to the advocacy because we realized how important it was and that other people really wanted to know about it. So that led to my first book, Forever Green and then the children’s book, The Tree Farmer.
ArtsATL: In your documentary, Tree Man, you say you often turn to the whistling of the pines when seeking balance. What sorts of things does their whistling tell you?
Leavell: Emerson said, “In the woods we return to reason and faith.” I believe that’s so true and powerful. When I’m in the woods — running the dogs or taking a walk or doing some work — that’s my church. It re-energizes me and gives me strength and peace and hope – all at the same time. And, it’s also my food. The whistling of the trees helps balance me from being in noisy cities and being in front of big crowds, which I also love. But I’m reminded that a walk in the woods is not less important than that time spent in the city. And I like that both worlds offer me the opportunity to leave a legacy.