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Chuck Leavell

A Conversation with Chuck Leavell

By Michael B. Smith
June 2000

What can you say about Chuck Leavell? He is and has been one of the most sought-after keyboard players in rock and roll, from his classic work with The Allman Brothers Band- remember "Jessica?" - to his band Sea Level, and his unprecedented tours with The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison- to his album and live appearances with everyone from The Black Crowes and Blues Traveler to Govt Mule, Leavell has maintained a reputation as one of the very best. Dividing his time between his music and his Charlane Plantation, Chuck is truly "the hardest working man in show business" (besides James Brown, of course!). In an exclusive for GRITZ, Leavell talks about forestry, President Carter, Mick & Keith, The Allmans, and more.

Chuck, where are you from originally?

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1952. My dad was an insurance salesman, and worked for Protective Life there at the time. We moved to the country outside of Montgomery around '56 for a few years. I went to first and second grades there...then back to Birmingham for a couple of years, then finally when I was in the sixth grade we moved to Tuscaloosa, and we stayed there. So there was some moving around, but we finally settled in T-Town, and that's what I consider the hometown of my youth. And you know, there were so many good players that came from Tuscaloosa. Some of which unfortunately aren't with us any more. Like Lou Mullinax, a great drummer that worked with us early on. And Tippi Armstrong, one of the best guitar players ever. There are guys that are still around from Tuscaloosa that are still playing that many people don't know much about. Bill Connell was a top notch drummer. He played with the Allman Joys and others, and probably is still playing some. My old pal Glen Butts still plays around Birmingham, and my good friend Dr. Jim Coleman has at least three really good records out. Tuscaloosa was a hot spot there for a few years, for sure.

Tell us about where you live now. It's a bed & breakfast, tree farm animal farm, all in one, right?

Well, not exactly a bed and breakfast or an animal farm, although we do have some horses and lots of pointing dogs. It's a Plantation. A Plantation is technically a farm or parcel of land that is devoted to one central agricultural commodity, such as in a sugar cane plantation, a cotton plantation, and so on. Ours is a pine plantation. It started when my wife inherited 1200 acres from her grandmother back in '81. We had to overcome some problems, like high estate taxes, and the fact that the place had somewhat run down due to Miss Julia's (Rose Lane's grandmother) bad health the last ten years of her life. When she was running it, it was more like a farm, but had some timber on it as well. We managed to get through the hard stuff, and over the last ten years we've added about another 1000 acres to the inheritance, so we have about 2200 acres now.

In addition to being a pine plantation, we manage intensely for wildlife, and have a commercial hunting preserve. We offer guided deer, quail, turkey and duck hunting with lodging and meals. From time to time we also book conferences and other events, but mainly the accommodations are for the hunters. We are also very involved in using Charlane for educational purposes, and occasionally sponsor tours to that end for young and old. Our website tells a lot about what we do.....it's www.charlane.com.

I noticed you have Jack Russell terriers. We have two, Taz (age 6) and Tessa (age 3). Tell us about your doggies.

LOVE our Jacks!! We unfortunately only have one now, a female named Lilly. We've had three litters out of her, and kept one female out of the last one before we had her spayed....named her Bama...but she's gone now...hit by a car. So sad. She was really special. We do have a close friend that has one of Lilly's pups, another female, and we plan on breeding her to get another female for us to carry on the line. I'll always have a JRT, for sure!!

You recently "retired" from the road life with The Rolling Stones, at least that's what I heard. What caused this decision, and how long did you perform with the band?

Wrong, wrong, WRONG!! Where in the world did you hear that? No, I have no plans to stop rockin' and rollin', dude! We did what turned out to be almost a two year tour with the Stones, and we finished last June, almost a year ago now. I think all of us wanted to get off the road for at least a year after that tour .It was an enormously successful run, and we had a blast, but it was long, and we needed a long break. I've taken the last ten months to work on Charlane Plantation, and do some other projects. Rose Lane and I were named the National Outstanding Tree Farmers for 1999 by the American Tree Farm System, and we've been very active in the forestry community this past year. We sit on the operating committee of the American Forest Foundation, sponsor a scholarship at the University of Georgia's Forestry School, and I'm writing a book on forestry now. I'm about halfway through it at the moment, and hope to have it out before the end of 2000. I serve as a spokesperson for the Georgia Forestry Association, and give speeches to groups from time to time.

I went to Yale University within the past year and had a great experience there. I will be the keynote speaker for the PERC organization (Political Economic Research Center) in Montana later this year, and will keynote the GFA annual meeting in Savannah in July. Also did the Leadership Georgia keynote several months ago (a special organization within the Chamber of Commerce her in Ga), several Rotary Clubs, and the Southern Forest Products Association. I'm also working on a solo piano cd that I hope to have out at the same time as the book. I'm on the new Richard Ashcroft (formerly of the Verve) cd that is out now, and have played a few isolated shows in various settings since the Stones tour ended. As far as the Stones future plans are concerned, of course that is up to the four main guys.And they don't share their decisions with the rest of us until after they meet and decide what path to take. I have no idea at the moment what the plans are, but I hope they aren't done. I think they have a lot of music left in them, and my best guess is that the Stones will be back before too long. So we're pretty busy over here, and no "retirement" in sight!

Sum up for us the REAL Mick Jagger....Keith Richards?

Oh, man. Why does everybody ask that? Well...I'm afraid that you can't "sum up" Mick and Keith. It's too complicated. Hey, they are Rock Icons! They are legends- but they are also people- human beings just like you and me. I really don't want to go into their private lives. They are both intensely interesting individuals, as we know. They are extremely good songwriters/performers, as we know. They have a strong handle on who they are and how they want their career to go. They both (as well as Ronnie and Charlie) have an incredible work ethic. The Stones have over 50 albums now, and God knows how many tours under their belt. Close to 40 year's worth now. That takes an enormous amount of energy, planning, writing, rehearsing, performing, promotion, and everything else that goes along with it. It take a strong will and a lot of work to accomplish a track record like they have. And like all of us, they have private lives to live with families and such. Mick's mother just passed away this month (May). I know it was a blow to him. so remember that these guys go through all the stuff that the rest of us do. In my opinion, Mick and Keith handle fame better than most. It's a tough thing to be so public...to be so recognizable, and still try to maintain some sort of "normalcy" in your life. I feel very fortunate there. I wouldn't want that much recognition myself. It's nice to be known and for people to tell you that they listen to your music, and perhaps that you've made some difference in their lives, but it's quite another thing to be hounded all the time like they are. Like I said, they handle it very well.

What are some of your most cherished musical "moments" and memories?

So many-but here's a few: Recording "Brothers and Sisters" with the Allman Brothers Band, and Johnny Sandlin producing. Playing Watkins Glen with the Allmans, the Band and the Grateful Dead-600,000 people there. Sea Level shows with Jan Hammer on the bill. My audition with the Stones. Playing Prague with them in '90 on the Steel Wheels tour just after the Chech's gained their independence- 102,000 at that show. Club dates with the Stones. Moscow with the Stones. Touring with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Eric Clapton sitting in with the Stones at Shea Stadium doing "Little Red Rooster" on the American "Steel Wheels" tour. 24 Nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London with Eric Clapton. "Unplugged" with Eric, especially playing "Old Love." Touring Japan with George Harrison, playing all those great tunes, like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Doing the Chuck Berry movie, "Hail, Hail Rock and Roll." Playing with Ray Charles, Little Richard, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and others in Italy for a live TV show. Playing with Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Seal, Robert Palmer, Chaka Kahn, Mary J Blidge, Toni Braxton, and more at Wembly Stadium in London for a live broadcast just three years ago. There are many, many other fantastic memories, but those stand out at the moment.

I just interviewed Jimmy Nalls today. What a great player and a great guy as well. Your thoughts on Jimmy, and then on his new recording, which you play on.

Jimmy is a special person in my life. We recruited him way back when some of us Alabama boys were playing with Alex Taylor. Jimmy was the right guy, and we were grateful to get him. He not only fit in, but added a spice that we needed. After my stint with the Allmans, '72-'76, we got him for Sea Level, and he was perfect for that band as well. We used to have the best times together. We roomed a lot on the road, and of course spent lots of time traveling with those bands, so we became very close friends. He's having a hard time of it now with Parkinson's, but I think he is maintaining a strong positive attitude, and that says a lot. I'm proud to be on his solo cd, and enjoyed the grooves I played on. I hope he can do other ones in the future, and will be glad to contribute if he asks. He's got a wonderful family, too, and I miss him since he moved to Nashville.

Let's touch on The Allman Brothers Band. Probably my all-time favorite group. "Jessica" has become such a classic. How many takes, or how long did it take to get that incredible piano part down?

Well, thanks. And thanks to Dickey Betts for writing that piece. It's been berry, berry good to me! As I recall, Dickey first played it to us on acoustic guitar. We sort of toyed with it at first, just getting comfortable with the changes and getting the harmony parts between the guitar, piano and organ. Then we ran through it like, once a night for a few nights in a row until we felt confident about all the twists and turns, and slowly developing some of the transitions that occurred. I don't know how many takes it was, but not many after we really learned the song. I'd guess three or four. There may be an edit in there between takes, I can't really remember, but Johnny Sandlin could probably answer that. As far as the piano part, it just came...I tried not to think about it, not to "organize" a part, other than to learn the harmony and the other necessary parts. I was just trying to keep up with those guys, and the notes I played on the solo just fell off my fingers. The solo just sort of played itself. It felt very natural, and I was just thrilled to have a song like that with a strong role for my instrument.

What was it like for you during those Allman days?

How much space do you have for this interview?! To give you a feel for where I was coming from, I had just turned 20 years old. I had what I think was pretty good experience and maturity for that age, and really wanted to be in a good band. I mean a really good band. I wanted a gig with a band like that sooo bad, guys that could really play, and that had something different and special. But it came totally out of left field to be asked to come into the Allmans. As you know, they had gone out as a five- piece band for a while after Duane's tragic accident. I was with Alex Taylor, and shortly after that, Dr. John at the time, and both bands opened up for them quite a bit. We were all so impressed that they went out as a five- piece.That took a lot of guts. Well, they had finished "Eat A Peach," and had done some dates, and I think they were trying to sort out their future. Gregg was to do a solo album, and Johnny Sandlin called me in to play on it. As it turned out, the rest of the Allmans came down to the studio, hanging out, and we just started jamming. We had lots of these fun jams between Gregg's solo sessions, and things just felt really good. After a couple of weeks of this, sometimes doing Gregg's music, and sometimes jamming with the Allmans, I get a call to have a meeting with the band and Phil Walden at his office. I didn't know what was up, but when they asked me to join the band I nearly fell over! I was trying so hard to be cool about it, but I'm sure it was obvious that I was surprised. I couldn't believe my good fortune, doing the new ABB record and Gregg's first solo record at the same time! It was a huge boost for me, and I was over the moon to be alive and playing with these great musicians! There's not enough space to tell you about the years that were to come, but I can just say that during my whole tenure with the band I was proud to be there. There were tough times, as we all know...and I wish so much that things had not come in the way of the music, but eventually they did. So I was heartbroken when the band broke up. But Jaimoe, Lamar and I decided to carry on and formed Sea Level, and that led to a whole other story.

Are you still friends with the ABB?

Yes, we're still friends. But I don't really stay in close touch with them. I talk to Jaimoe more than anyone else. However, recently at Jo Dan Petty's memorial service at the Grand Opera House in Macon, we all played together again. It was the first time in 25 years that I've played in public with the ABB, and it was a thrill. It felt really good to do those songs again, and it made me have this melancholy feeling- plus losing Jo Dan- such a fine man he was. It was all very emotional and uplifting at the same time. I could just see JD smiling at having all those players on the stage. In addition to the Allmans, there was Bonnie Bramlett, the Grinderswitch guys, Lee Roy Parnell, and others. Quite an experience. Dickey said to me later, at the Big House, the "communal" house that the band occupied back in the late 60's and early 70's, and now is Kirk West's house- "Chuck, it was so good to hear that piano in Jessica again. You know, it's just not "Jessica" without it" I had to hold back the tears.

Now, just today, I read in the Macon Telegraph and News that the Allmans have at least temporarily "suspended" Dickey from the band. Wow, that's strong. I hate to hear that. I just hope that things work out for everyone. There has always been the element of turmoil with the Allmans. It was there when I was in the band, and I know it was there before, and it's been there since. It's a shame that the music can't take control and somehow make them all realize that THAT's what it's all about. You can rise above the rest if you maintain that focus. The Stones have learned to do it. They've had all the turmoil, and have realized that the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. You have to respect each other, though, and I guess for the principal members of the ABB it's come down to that. I love 'em all, and can only wish them all the best.

Buy The Best of Sea Level at AMAZON.COM

What are your most vivid recollections of the band Sea Level?

Well, as I mentioned above, we had some great shows playing theaters with Jan Hammer being the opening act, and then he would sit in with us. Sea Level was a great band. We had a hard time with the record company and the retail stores, because we were so hard to tag. We did instrumentals, but we sang, and we played rock 'n roll, but we played r&b, and we had tinges of jazz. I felt for the label and the stores, because they couldn't figure out where to put us- rock? instrumental? jazz? But we didn't really care. We just played and had fun. As you know, the personnel changed a good bit Jaimoe left, and we had George Weaver on drums for a while. Jaimoe had suggested him to us. He played in Otis Redding's band for a while, then later Joe English. We added Randall Bramblett and Davis Causey to the lineup. And very late in the game we had a guy named Paul Brodeur on bass...great player, but he died of cancer- a tragic thing. Also had Matt Greeley playing percussion and singing for a couple of years, who also died of cancer, but much later, years after the band had broken up. I loved playing with Sea Level. We had wonderful times in the studio, and on the road. Stewart Levine (producer on three of the records) is still a very good friend, and I learned a lot from him during those years. I guess the theaters were the most fun for me to play with that band. It just seemed to work better than clubs or big dates. I somehow think that Sea Level never really reached it's potential, and that's a shame. But I don't like looking back over my shoulder, and really all I can say is that I'm grateful for the experience, and think I'm a better musician for it.

I have a bootleg tape somewhere of you jamming with The Marshall Tucker Band. Reflect on that group, if you would, especially the Caldwell brothers.

Toy and Tommy were the greatest. I suggested Stu Levine as a producer for them after Paul Hornsby stopped working with them, and played on a few tracks on a couple of albums with them. I would always sit in with them if they asked. They were all good guys, and I had wonderful times playing and just hanging out with those boys. Toy was sooo funny. He could crack me up. They were both good joke tellers. Toy definitely had the fastest thumb in the world as far as guitar players go, and was a great songwriter. Tommy was a little more serious, sort of the bandleader, as far as I could tell. It's so sad how it all happened, Tommy's accident, and after that Toy was never really the same. Then Toy's death, and their other brother died as well. I know that had to be tough on their parents. So sad. But I'll always remember them fondly, with a big smile on my face.

I have recently begun writing about Bobby Whitlock. Do you have any stories concerning Bobby you could share?

Well, not that I can tell here!! Oh, Bobby and I were, and are, good pals. We lived not too far from each other in Macon, and hung out a lot. Our wives were friends, and our kids played together. What a voice he has, and a versatile musician. I'm glad he's got the new cd out, and think it's really good. I know he was on Jools Holland's BBC television show recently with Eric playing. I didn't see it, but I'll bet that was great. Bobby and I have a lot in common- mainly that we live in the country and love it- and he's one of my good pals, for sure. But he could be pretty wild in those Macon days. We all were, to some degree. I was proud to play on the record he did for Capricorn way back when, and am glad to know he's back in action. We've been communicating lately, and it looks like there is a possibility that we may do some show over in London this summer...we'll see.

My wife and I really enjoyed the Eric Clapton tour of, I believe it was 1992. He did the Cream and Dominoes tunes, and you sang a lot. How was it working with Clapton? What's he like?

Eric is a champ. What a talent! What an honor to play with him, and it was certainly a highlight of my career. I just hope to get to do it again someday. But it wasn't just Eric, you see. It was THAT BAND...Nathan East on bass, Steve Ferrone on drums, Andy Fairweather-Low on guitar, Ray Cooper on percussion, Katy Kissoon and Tessa Niles singing, and when I first came into the band, Greg Phillinganes was there as first keyboardist, and I was sort of the "second". All of those people are just extraordinary players and singers, and I couldn't believe I was playing in this band!! Then when we did the tour of Japan with George Harrison, Greg resigned. He had been there a long time, and wanted to get off the road and do other things, like produce. So Eric came to me and said, "well, Greg is leaving, and I want to do some dates after this tour with George. Do you want to handle the keyboards on your own, or do you think we should get someone else in?" I said, "Eric, let me sleep on that." The next day I went to him and said, "You know, I think I'd be happy to try this myself. It would give me some room to stretch out and contribute more." So he agreed, and the next thing we did was the "Unplugged" project. That was like letting the tiger out of the cage, man. I had loved what I'd done with Eric up to that point, but it was really a rather minor role. When we did "Unplugged," I just couldn't WAIT to play. You must understand that it was a whole different set of music, as well. We had been doing the regular set, and when we rehearsed for "Unplugged," we only had, I think, three days of rehearsals to do something like14 or 15 totally different tunes, or different arrangements, like the treatment of "Layla," for instance.

We had rehearsed "Old Love", but Eric decided he didn't want it in the set. But when we did the show, we played all the tunes we had rehearsed, it had gone just great, and the crowd still wanted more. I don't know why he turned to me, but he did, and said, "What can we do now?" I said "Do "Old Love." So he agreed, and called the tune. Man, I was just laying for that solo at the end, all wound up like a spring, and when it came, it was the huge release I'd been waiting for, and I cut loose. It felt soooooo good to get that out, I just can't tell you. I'll give one more "Unplugged" story. As you may know, after the song "Alberta, Alberta," he calls out my name, in his English accent, "Chaulk La-Velle!!!" Now, I have this friend that works in the forestry industry, and she tells me, "my little boy, who is about six years old just loves that part where he calls out your name, because he thinks Eric is saying "chocolate milk!"" I just love that! Anyway, after that we had a couple of days off, then went back and rehearsed the regular set, and I had to adapt a lot of what I had done before with him, as Greg had done most of the major stuff before. But I did my homework, and pulled it together for the tour. Along the way, Eric said, "So who's gonna sing those parts that Greg sang?" I said, "Well, I'd like to give it a go." He put me right on the spot then and there, and said.."OK, let's hear it." So I sang the part in "White Room" that Jack Bruce originally did for him, and he said, "You've got the gig!" That made me feel really good, as I hadn't really had a chance to sing much since the Sea Level days. Eric was good to me, and good for me. And again, it was such an honor to be on stage with all those players. What a team it was! I miss all of them a lot.

Tell us a little about your recent Christmas album. What compelled you to dip into the Holiday cheer ?

It's called "What's In That Bag?", and it started as a Christmas card. I had decided to record a few tunes just for fun, and have 1000 cd's and 500 cassettes made up to send out to friends and family.I had wanted to do it for years, and finally made myself do it. David Clark had a little studio in Cochran, Ga, which is just about 15 miles from our place, and I had my little studio at home, so between the two we recorded maybe 7 or so songs in about a week, using local guys, and of course some of it was solo piano. We finished it up, and David did the cover, as he was good with computer graphics. I called it "A Homemade Christmas." It was a really fun project, and I had tons of people I had sent it to call me up to comment on it and thank me. My manger, Buck Williams, had sent a bunch around to industry people, and Phil Walden of Capricorn Records called me up to say how much he enjoyed it, and would I be interested in putting it out to the public? Well, it was such a quickie recording that we had done, and I said..."OK, but only if you let me rework some of it, and add some more to round it out." I recruited my old pal Johnny Sandlin to assemble the musicians, and we did the additional recording at his home studio in Huntsville, Alabama. I was lucky to get some fine players, like Bill Stewart and Rodger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Kelvin Holly on guitar, Scott Boyer on guitar and vocals, and others.We had a blast, and we did it on a couple of short visits, on my breaks from the Stones tour in "97. I'm really happy with it, and the only problem is that for some reason Capricorn seems unable to get it into the retail stores it needs to be in.So I tell everybody that it's available on the Net at AMAZON, CDNOW, MUSIC BOULEVARD, all those dotcom places that sell cd's. No problem getting it there.

Who were some of your major musical influences through the years? Jimmy Nalls said you studied some serious Dr. John.

Well, yeah, of course. Playing with Mac was like going to the University of Funkology. I learned so much from him, and still do just by listening to his latest releases. I mean, he is THE MAN as far as I'm concerned. But my influences started way before that. My mother was my first influence. She played for the family. She wasn't a professional or anything, just played for enjoyment. But she definitely influenced me, mainly by teaching me to think in terms of feelings and emotions rather than just notes. Later, I listened to a lot of gospel music on the radio....both black and white. Then still later, artists like Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nickey Hopkins, Leon Russell, Elton John, Billy Preston, Otis Span, Pinetop Perkins...and still later, I started listening to some of the jazz guys, like Earl Hines, Monk, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Keith Jarrett is one of my favorites of all times....I'll never be in their league, but listening to them is still being influenced by them to some degree. Ian Stewart taught me about the boogie-woogie greats, like Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Montana Taylor, Pete Johnson...all those guys. Boogie-woogie is a real art form, and it's not easy to play, especially when those left hand figures get complicated...I love that stuff!

I think I mentioned last time I interviewed you (1991) that a friend of mine is Rudy "Blue Shoes" Wyatt. He just put out a pretty killer cd a few months ago. Any thoughts on Rudy, or stories?

Rudy is a pal, and a great player. He does the best version of "Route 66" that I think I've ever heard. I try to copy that, but I'll never do it like he can. He is pretty well known around the Carolinas, but should be known beyond that. I think that is beginning to happen a little bit for him, and that's a good thing.

Who do you listen to these days?

Well, I still listen to all the guys I mentioned above when you asked about influences...but as far as contemporary stuff, not much to be honest. I have a hard time finding something on the radio dial that I can deal with these days. So I usually listen to talk radio, and especially NPR. Mostly for the in depth coverage of mainstream issues, but also for the great music that comes on from time to time on their various programs. At home on my 5-disc cd player, at the moment I've got Santana's new record, Bruce Hornsby's "Spirit Trail," Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue," an Ella Fitzgerald cd, and Keith Jarrett's "Standards, Vol 2." I love the blues, and will always listen to guys like Little Walter, Muddy, Memphis Slim, Otis Span....all of that. I've been listening lately to Gov. Mule's new one, 'Life Before Insanity.' Really good, Warren and gang!! Bernie Warell played really well on that. My old pal Randall Bramblett has an absolutely fantastic yet unreleased cd that I just love.I don't think it's got a title yet, but it is so great.

I still stop the radio dial on some of the old rock or r&b stuff...say, like Sam and Dave, Aretha, Otis...or Steve Winwood, a Beatles tune, Dylan tune, even the Stones...I still enjoy listening to something like "Honky Tonk Women" or "Jumpin' Jack Flash." I also enjoy classical music sometimes, even though I'm not well versed in it. The same with jazz. I've never really been into the hard stuff like Nirvana, Megadeath, Ozzy, anything like that....it just don't talk to me, ya know? And I don't like formula pop stuff...it's just so predictable....like most of Country music. I do like the good ones in country....Clint Black, Lee Roy Parnell, Travis, Randy Scruggs is very cool and I had the pleasure of playing on his record with Roseanne Cash as the featured artist...and Mark Knopfler on guitar. And of course I love the classic country artists...Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie, Waylon...all of that...and Reba, Winnona, Trisha Yearwood...But most of what I hear in Country these days, like Pop, is just as I said...predictable. The new black music...rap, hip-hop...well, some of it speaks to me, but honestly not much. I do like some of the inventive rhythms that come out of it...and some, like Arrested Development, or Lauryn Hill have some social commentary that I think has merit, but for the most part all of that stuff seems so negative to me...no stories, and the lyric content is either violent or stupid sex gibberish. I mean, is that really interesting?...Is that enduring? Not to me. Not like "Respect", or "Try A Little Tenderness", or "Young, Gifted and Black." And so much vocal acrobatics in some of it....really overdone as far as I'm concerned...the vocal phrasing just goes over the top for me on a lot of what I hear on the radio...I mean, why try to sing every phrase you know in one song? It's like shooting all of your guns off at once. Hey, save some of your ammunition!! Well, enough bitchin' from me on all of that. I do like some of the contemporary artists out there now, like Faith Hill, Sarah McLaughlin....Macy Gray is pretty cool. I don't mean to say that I don't like ANYTHING on the radio these days, I do...but I think we're in sort of a gray era for rock/pop music right now. I don't think most of what is out there at the moment is anything that we'll all care a hoot about ten years from now.

I believe I recall you playing for President Carter. How was that? Seems like that would be a kick. Toy Caldwell told me once that it was a big thrill.

It was an honor to play for Jimmy Carter. And I'll tell you about a fantastic experience I had earlier this year. I went quail hunting in Plains with President Carter, former Attorney General Griffin Bell, and two of my friends in forestry. One manages Carter's forestland, and the other has a consulting forestry and investment firm in Atlanta. So it was the five of us hunting together all day. Wonderful! Carter is 75 years young, and Bell is 82 years young. I tell you, they were like kids. They are both in excellent shape, and both are inspirations to me. Such energy! Carter has done so much for humanity. As far as I'm concerned, he's way up there with people like Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert Kennedy, that league. He's an American treasure...and a darn good shot, too!

I am hoping to get him to do the forward to my forestry book. As I mentioned, he has forestland down in Plains, and manages it well. He knows about the concerns of folks like me that own and manage their land, trying to do the right thing for the big picture. If he agrees to do the forward, I think I could just go on to Heaven. We all had a great time hunting together, and we talked about those dates way back with the Allmans, and about when as Governor of Georgia, he came down to Capricorn studios when we were recording Dickey Bett's "Highway Call" record. He asked good questions back then about music, the recording process, the business, and the personalities that make music, and on our hunt, he asked about the state of the music industry today- the problems, the successes, the failures, the changes in the last 30 years- and he even asked what Mick is like!!

Buy Chuck Leavell's Between a Rock and a Home Place at AMAZON.COM

Give me your thoughts on Gov't Mule. Your work on the "Live with a Little Help from Our Friends" box/book set is fabulous.

Warren has been a friend for a long time. You probably know that I produced his first solo CD, "Tales Of Ordinary Madness." That was a wonderful experience, and I'm very proud of the outcome. Too bad that it sort of got lost in the shuffle...maybe one day it will get the attention it deserves. Matt Abts is a helluva drummer. I worked with him on a Betts tour ages ago. He's one of those guys that had to be born with a pair of sticks in his hand. I was very glad that Woody and Warren got him for that spot. It's been a groove to see them mature. As I stated earlier in this interview, the new cd is the shit- it's Mule to the next level. There is no doubt in my mind that if they keep at it, they will be huge. Maybe even on this one. As for the New Year's Eve gig. What fun! Warren was a champ to ask all those players to come...Randall Bramblett, Bernie Warrell, Derek, everybody. He's like that, though, always finding a situation to invite interesting musicians to play together. I love that tune on the new cd, "Bad Little Doggie."Just great! Mule Rules!

What about The Black Crowes?

Yeah, a great opportunity for me way back then. I got a call when I was in L.A. working on a Dave Edmunds record in, like '89? It's been a while now, and I forget exactly the year....anyway, this guy calls me out of the blue and tells me that he's producing an Atlanta band called "Mr. Crowe's Garden", and they wanted me to play on it. That was George Dracoulius. So he says can we get together for lunch and he'll play me a tape. I tell him, sure.So he shows up at the hotel in an old Cadillac convertible...this big guy with hair down to his knees, almost, and I'm thinking"what have you gotten yourself into here?" We go to lunch, and in the car he plays me this really raw...I mean REALLY raw tape made at a rehearsal with these guys. It was hard to hear anything on that tape, except the main thing came shining through was the energy there...the energy just jumped off the tape. I could tell they had something going, and agreed to do the session. It was quite a while after that that we actually did the recording .back in Atlanta. I was just about to go on tour with the Stones and only had a day to do it. At first, they only wanted me on like 2 or 3 tracks. This was all overdubs, by the way. So I start playing, and it's rockin'- good songs, lots of energy on the tracks, and it was easy for me to do my thing on it. After a couple of tracks, George says..."well, how about adding some organ on this one"...so I did that...then..."ah, there's this one more"...and I did that...then "ooooh, this other one might work." So the bottom line was that I worked my ass off all day, and came back the next day to do even more.

I can't remember how many tracks I wound up on, but it was a lot- maybe 7 or 8. I really, really enjoyed that session. When it's that easy to contribute something, you know it's working. Then after the CD came out, they were going to do a video, and asked me to do that.I agreed. It was "She Talks To Angels." A day or so before that, I get a call from Eddie Harish, whom I had met when I was touring with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Eddie was playing with Albert Collins, and we did some shows together. I first heard Eddie at a sound check. He was playing by himself, getting a sound for his keyboards. I heard this fantastic playing....and went up to him to introduce myself. We became friends straight away. So Eddie calls me and says "what about these Crowes' boys?" And I said "Well, yeah....I'm doing a video, and they are going on the road soon....they need a keyboard player...I can't do it because of the Stones tour, and you should come down and check it out." He did, and got the gig the next day. So I put myself out of work!! Eddie has done a suburb job with them. They have survived a great deal in the last 10+ years, and that says a lot. It takes a survivor instinct, and a lot of "stick-to-it" to overcome the difficulties that they have had....and they have done it. I haven't bought the latest thing they did with Page, but have heard some of it on the radio...and I will be ordering it, for sure!

I just heard that you may be involved in the project coming this fall reuniting Whitlock and Clapton, Derek Trucks, etc. Could be a new Dominoes! Any thoughts on that gig?

That's the thing I referred to before. But I don't like talking about stuff prematurely. Bobby has asked me if I'd be available if it comes together, and I told him that if he assembles all these guys, you darn tootin' I'll be there! But I think it has a lot of clearance to go before it's for sure...so keep your fingers crossed!

If you could go back in time and change one thing about your life or career, what would it be?

No way, dude!! Nada. Zilch, zero. There have been times when I thought I should have studied music a little more before I turned pro....maybe I could have learned to read music, learned more about orchestral music and been able to write charts for orchestra and the like, but then I would have sacrificed something to do that, and would have missed some of the wonderful times that I had in those early years touring and recording. And I wouldn't have developed my particular style, and therefore might not have done myself any favors...so really, no regrets, I do what I do, and I am the most grateful person in the world for my life. I have a wonderful family, I've played with some great artists, I've been able to make some contribution in the realm of forestry, and I'm able to continue all of the above. The way I have it figured, I'm going to live to be about 120, so there is lots out there that I still have to do!!

You've played with EVERYBODY! Is there anyone, living or dead, you wish you could/had perform(ed) with?

Well....not everybody, my friend! Yeah, there are a lot of artists I want to play with...I love Sting's music...and he needs me in his band! I like what he does, but sometimes I want to hear some "edge" in there...and I think I could give an artist like that something to rough it up a bit. I've had a call recently that may turn into a session with the Proclaimers from Scotland...hope that turns into reality. I'm a big fan of Joni Mitchell....have been for years and years...and would walk to L.A. from Georgia to play with her. I like the calls from the up-and -coming....like I got from the Crowes and from Blues Traveler, so I hope there are bands that I've never heard of that I'll wind up playing with. I would have loved to play with some more of the blues greats...I have played with or jammed with Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Johnny Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray, and a lot of others, but would have loved to play with Albert King, Little Walter, Robert Johnson....God, I could go on and on.....

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What's next for you musically? Otherwise?

There is the forestry book to finish, and the solo piano cd to do. That is the immediate focus. And I truly hope the Stones want to do it again, and that I'll get the call again. I don't think it's over for them...Mick and Keith still write great songs as far as I'm concerned...and I was sorely disappointed not to have played on the "Babylon" CD...of course I did the tour, but when they were recording in L.A., they chose to use local boys...that's ok....Billy Preston was on there, as was Benmont Tench...and they did fine....but I would have done better. That's what Mick and Keith need to know...so we'll see.

I still have tons of things I want to do at Charlane Plantation....expanding our accommodations....and would love the opportunity to add to the acreage here. And there are a lot of things that concern those of us within the forestry community that I'd like to make a difference on....as a matter of fact, today Rose Lane and I fly to Washington, DC to meet with our congressmen and senators, as well as some CEO's of major timber companies to discuss several issues concerning forestry. We have an important election coming up in November, and I want all of the candidates to fully understand the important issues facing forest landowners and the forestry community in general...it's very important, and the future depends on their understanding of what's going on....so wish me luck!

One final question. Do you like to eat grits, and if so, how do you like 'em cooked?

Do I eat grits?!....Is a mule stubborn?!! Does a bear shit in the woods?!! Of course, I eat grits. Several ways...cheese grits with catfish, grits with breakfast...with fried quail...with redeye gravy and county ham....fried grits for the pot you left in the refrigerator the day before....I could write a whole book!! I'll share with you one recipe, and I hate to admit that it came from a Yankee, but it did. It's good for variety... not exactly a purist's version...but it does work, and I shouldn't even tell you, but here goes:

You prepare the boiling water as usual, but instead of grits only (NOT the instant, of course) you do half and half grits and cream of wheat...and that needs to be mixed up pretty well before you pour it in. Then you add a scrambled egg and some parmesan cheese about five minutes before it's ready...mix it in and stir it a bit while the mixture is still sort of soupy...then let it finish to the proper consistency, and add butter, of course! Salt and pepper to taste. Ummmmmmm!!


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