Chuck Leavell: This Rolling Stone Gathers Trees
Chuck Leavell: Keyboardist, tree farmer, and author
Chuck Leavell has been a melodic force behind some of rock 'n' roll's biggest acts. He played with George Harrison and Eric Clapton and has been touring with the Rolling Stones for nearly 30 years. (The rollicking piano solo on the Allman Brothers Band's hit instrumental "Jessica" is his.) Leavell is also a committed conservationist and tree farmer. He and his wife, Rose Lane, grow oak, elm, and pine trees on their 2,500-acre forest in Bullard, Georgia. A cofounder of the popular eco-site Mother Nature Network, he just finished his fourth book about conservation, Growing a Better America.
Q: What got you into tree farming?
A: It's all my wife's fault. She comes from a family that's dedicated to the land and has been for generations. In 1981 we inherited property from her grandmother. We considered all manner of possibilities for it — pecans, peaches, different options. But the more I studied forestry, the more I got a long-term view of what managing a forest has to offer.
Q: What's good about planting trees?
A: Oh my goodness. What's not good about planting trees? First, they give us incredible natural, organic, renewable building materials. Second, they give us a tremendous list of products. They also clean our air, clean our water, and provide home and shelter to all manner of wildlife. Trees are the best sequesterer of carbon there is. To me, they're really the most important natural resource we have.
Q: Do musicians tend to be more in tune with the earth?
A: One of the first "aha" moments I had was realizing that my instrument comes from the resource of wood. It's the same with just about any other musical instrument — even saxophones have a reed. So there's already, for me, a very strong connection to the earth with music. I think musicians in general are sensitive to that.
Q: Has your environmentalism has influenced your Rolling Stone band mates?
A: I’m a hired gun. But I certainly encourage the artists I work with to look at that, and I would certainly like to think so.
Q: The rock culture is known to be . . . excessive. Did seeing that influence your environmentalism?
A: The truth is, I’m a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was definitely a cultural revolution that went on in my generation. Along with all that was being discussed, the environment was certainly part of that. Our generation was one of the first to stand up. We made a difference, I’m proud to say. The birth of the EPA was a result of our pointing fingers. Yes, there was certainly excess, no doubt. But I think the ones of us that are still around are survivors that woke up, and that have some internal governor that knew when to say no. We focused on what was important to us, and that was the music. The other stuff was fluff.
Q: How do you deal with seeing that much waste at the concerts at which you perform?
A: Those are things that need to be addressed by entertainers. The Rolling Stones tour was made carbon neutral by donating money to an organization that plants trees.
Q: Do you believe in offsetting?
A: I have an open mind as to how it could pan out into law. But I think it's important to do something. What I don’t like is the idea of oh, just do nothing. Let’s face this problem head on.
Q: Are you noticing examples of people going greener in the music industry?
A: Yes, I think that’s across the board. Not only music entertainers. The corporate world, everyone is waking up to this. Most people want to make a difference. In my book I pointed out a lot of what my fellow entertainers have done. Personally, I don’t like entertainers of any type getting preachy about it, especially while on the stage. It’s my job to entertain, not to preach. It’s best to leave that for another setting.
Q: What’s the most important aspect of being a conservationist? What’s the most important action you take?
A: It’s so hard to say just one thing. Number one is just wake up and be aware. After that, there’s a list of things. CFLs make a difference. Carpool to work, drive a hybrid. Work with neighbors to make sure there are good walking and biking corridors. Buy Energy Star — buildings and homes are the largest offenders of carbon. For heaven's sake, walk. I was glad to see the first lady taking that on. That is a connectivity to saving energy and to getting healthier and connecting with the outdoors. We need to encourage our children to get off of those Xboxes.
Q: What advice would you give to young musicians or those just getting started?
A: You gotta find the passion. Once you’ve found it, engage in it. Read about it. Educate yourself about it and don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to fail. When I first started managing my forest, I made mistakes, planted trees the wrong way. Everybody’s gonna make mistakes. I couldn’t tell you how many times I stumbled on stage and it upset me so. Working with the Rolling Stones helped; they’re not the most precise artists but that’s part of their charm. It’s good to strive for perfection but understand that you’re never going to be perfect. My father used to say to me that there’s an art to everything. I think that’s so true. Whatever your calling in life is, there’s an art to it. What fascinates me about the art of land management is that the canvas we have to perform that art on is our own backyard. Let’s be careful of the colors we mix in our palette, because whatever we paint is gonna be there for a long time.
Q: You’ve also written three books. What’s the key to your productivity?
A: My feeling is that if you’re passionate about something and really believe in it, you’ll find the time it takes to get involved and let your feelings be known about it. Besides, I find it a lot of fun. I also can see the results of long-term sustainable management.
Q: You’re from Alabama, right? It seems like the South gets a bad rap in terms of caring for the environment but it actually has a lot of people who care passionately.
A: There’s no stronger environmentalist than Ted Turner. I played with the Allman Brothers in a rock concert to raise money for Jimmy Carter. Maybe we’re a little quieter about what we do in the South. We just go about the business of managing our land and being good stewards. My biggest fear is what I call the "invisible forest health crisis" — development. In the metro Atlanta area, we lose about 100 acres a day to growth and development and impervious surfaces. That’s a day. Those are scary numbers. Everybody’s gotta have an office and a place to live, but let’s do it intelligently.
—interview by Avital Binshtock / photo by Fernando Decillis