The Chuck Leavell Interview Fall 08 (Part One)
"The cultivation of trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling in man."
-J. Sterling Morton
This lost interview with Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell was conducted last fall. That week Chuck would induct The Athens, Georgia, band Widespread Panic into The Georgia Music Hall of Fame. I wrote Panic's official induction into The Hall of Fame Almanac so we were just talking about the ceremony at first. Then we decided a day later to go on the record regarding Chuck's latest ongoings. At the time, Chuck was on his tree farm outside of Macon and I was calling from my place in Atlanta.
Although conducted last year, this interview serves as an essential prelude--volume one if you will--to my upcoming latest Fall 09 interview with Chuck to discuss his new website MNN.com, music and his other up-to-the-moment endeavors. Part One of this interview Chuck reveals insight on forestry, his books, various solo recordings, re-cycling, his un-launched website and Widespread Panic. Part Two on the way before the Fall 09 Q & A with the great Chuck Leavell.
James Calemine: Hey Chuck.
Chuck Leavell: Hey man. Howya doin? Your timing is good, you want to talk? (Chuck tells his dogs to load up). I’m just running my dogs here – I’m piddlin’ and riding around on my place.
JC: Getting any rain down there?
CL: Well, we’ve been getting fair rain. None in the recent days. I don’t think it’s gonna effect us. They say 50 percent tomorrow, but I think that’s optimistic. Thursday we might have a better chance.
JC: Tell me about your new website.
CL: It is The Mother Nature Network. Eventually we’ll be known as MNN.com, that’s what we’re pushing for the website. It’s the brainchild of my partner Joel Babbit – I guess you read that AJC article. Basically, Joel came to me – Joel and I met through a mutual friend Dan Beason. We had a nice lunch about five years ago. We liked each other’s company. We stayed in touch and then one day I called him because I was looking to get some advice on a project I have called Love of the Land, which will eventually be a television program. Joel helped me with that and we became closer. Then he calls me one day and he told me he wanted me to look at something. He had a power point presentation covering all the Green websites out there. Then he said he represented too many different companies, and all of them want this image and they all do truly want to do better for their companies and their employees to be Greener and more eco-friendly, and more energy conscience, but there’s a lack of somewhere to go to get good information. He took me through all the existing sites, and he felt like there was a void where we could provide a valuable service to the general public as well as allowing these companies to have a place to go and tell their story. So, it looked incredible to me when he gave me the presentation. Then I said I think you’re right. I’m out there giving speeches and interacting with politicians on forest policy. I’m sitting on a couple of boards.
JC: (President) Bush recognized your work.
CL: That’s nice. Actually, that particular situation had to do with the Healthy Forest Restoration Bill, which I’m glad was passed. It was a positive thing for forestry. Anyway, I realized Joel was right. He said he’d really like me in on this, and I said you got it. We’ve started this thing. As you know, we’ve had some very strong backing – some very smart, powerful, intelligent and caring investors on our team. We have good content people – we’re building the company. We have Glick International helping us build the site. Everything is getting closer and closer. We don’t have an exact launch date yet, but we will soon. Certainly we want to do quite a push to let people know about this by the first of the year.
JC: I have to say your Forever Green book is a definitive book about trees, wood…it should be in schools…
CL: Well, I appreciate that, James. The book has been out for quite some time now. I worked very hard on that project. I wanted it to be accurate, thoughtful and hopefully entertaining pictures of forestry in America…where we’ve been…were we are now…where we’re going. It’s probably time for an update on that thing. It’s continued to do well. It’s been translated into German, and released in Germany and Austria. That really ties into my new CD – Live In Germany – Because the tour was designed not only to place music but to discuss these issues in a public forum in Germany, and we did that – it was vey successful.
JC: The musicians were all German, right?
CL: That’s right, all of them. Tim, the Stones’ horn guy, helped me find the band. Tim played with me on the Southscape record, but he was not on the Germany record – it’s a German sax player. Anyways, it was a marvelous experience – both musically and helping to address the environmental issues and concerns. We made more friends and met more interesting people. I’m sure this relationship will continue and I’ll be going back to Germany and doing other things in the future. Now, it’s catching on here in the States and I’ve been able to do some shows to promote the CD and I’ve enjoyed that. I’ve tried to be clever about the outreach and do radio programs and TV interviews and also in print – like yourself – and let the people know that I’ve got something out there. I’ve been able to do some shows connected to it and have fun with that. Now, I do want to mention I have a Christmas CD you’re probably aware of…
JC: I am….
CL: This is the tenth anniversary of What’s In That Bag. So, we’re going to be celebrating that. We have the tenth anniversary re-release of What’s In That Bag, and I’m hoping to maybe do some shows to help promote both CDs through November and December. Keep your fingers crossed. Talk to your friends and support live music (laughs)!
JC: The packaging on the new CD is killer…talk about that a little bit…it’s all recyclable.
CL: Thanks for that very much. The last several CDs that I’ve done – being the environmentalist and trying to maintain that angle – they’ve all been as eco-friendly as possible. They’re using paper products, recyclable materials, trying to keep a low footprint carbon in the making of each CD.
JC: It is more difficult to produce these CDs? Is it more of a pain?
CL: It requires…I wouldn’t call it a pain because it’s a labor of love, but I would say it requires some extra effort to do it, I enjoy it. To put together a nice little story of what that experience was all about. I think it’s important for the public to get a better feel for what it was. I appreciate your comment man, because we worked hard to make it good.
JC: The music is very complex music.
CL: Well, I hope it has a sophisticated feel. I appreciate that thought as well, James, because these guys were very talented and they are very studied musicians that worked hard to get where they are. To be able to bring them on board – it just put such an interesting twist on my music and on the rock and boogie playing that I normally do. As far as the set list is concerned it’s a retrospective of my career. That’s who I am. I’ve been fortunate to work with these people – The Stones, George Harrison and Clapton – it’s been a joy, an honor to work with such high caliber artists. To be able to do my version of some of their music that I’ve been privileged to play and be on and then mix it up with things I more personally attached to like Sea Level – those songs and my own more recent music. Then also a couple things for fun like the “Wee Wee Hour” song that was a classic Professor Longhair. Compared to what was an important record for me with Les McCann and Eddie Harris from the Swiss Movement album Live at Montreux. So, that’s what it’s all about. It’s being grateful for the career that I’ve had, and bring it all together and having some fun.
JC: Your book Between Rock And A Home Place is really one of the best books written by a musician.
CL: I appreciate it. I wrote that book when I was turning 50 thinking that was an interesting time to reflect back and look at some of the things I’ve done. I’d been fairly good about keeping some kind of journal, or speaking into the tape recorder and written diary. I had the resource there which was very important and then my good friend I have to compliment Jeff Craig- my co-writer – J. Marshall Craig –Jeff’s friend. I felt like I needed an outside perspective to help tell the story so he worked very hard and I thought did a good job to help me verbalize and really tell the story in a way that would be interesting. We talked about doing it in just chronological order, that’s the easy way out. We figured well why not start at the last big event, which was the last show of the Stones tour. Then coming off the Stones tour and getting back home. Then typing all that stuff in and then going back and looking at it. So, I appreciate the kind words on that. It was a lot of work…
JC: Indelible facts. The Forever Green contains great facts…like wood in toothpaste…
CL: (laughs) Well, you know cellulose is used in so many different products in one form or another. It’s a coagulant. People don’t think about that but it’s true. That’s a good thing. It’s a natural organic product. It’s a good thing that cellulose! It’s the preferred filler in coagulant in some of these materials – that’s good. You don’t want synthetic or chemically enhanced products. It surprises a lot of people all the things that trees are used for. Another category that is often neglected or over-looked is the mineral cleaning agents that come from the saps of trees. Now we’re talking about using trees for energy. There’s a lot of cellulosic….There’s a lot of discussion about cellulosic material to be used to make ethanol and other liquid energy products to help reduce the petroleum dependents. There’s also a lot of talk about woody bio-mass to be used for making natural gas and even making electricity. I’m very happy to see this because quite frankly those of us that are family forest land owners need markets for our wood. These are new markets and this helps us to pay the taxes on our land and helps us to keep these lands in our families. Right now, quite frankly, it’s a depressed time for forestry. You’ve seen the loss of a great deal of paper pulp and paper mills across the country in the past ten years. A lot of that business- like many other businesses – have moves off shore. That has created a lack of market for those of us that are growing these trees. So we need a market especially for that young wood. What we call juvenile wood.
JC: Is the forestry situation as desperate as it seems to the general person in the street who might have a moderate interest in the subject?
CL: Look, quite honestly, it’s remarkable that we have what we do have. The fact is that right now in America we have as much forest cover now as we had 100 years ago. How incredible is that given the fact that the population has tripled in that time, too. That says number one we are doing a good job now managing resources. The thing to point out there is that they majority of the forests in our country are owned privately as opposed to shall we say Canada that 95% of the lands there are owned by what they call the crown – the government. It’s a totally different system. We believe that private ownership is essential for the best management of the forests. So we like talking about family forestry. We like talking about keeping lands intact. We like keeping families on the land. So that’s the good news. But – are there pressures in that situation. I like to talk about the unusable forest health crisis; when I mean by that is we’re losing in the Southeast from Virginia down to east Texas approximately a million acres a year to growth and development – strip malls, residential sections…all the above – Therefore, that’s the reason for the impetus of me new book that I am just now beginning and will probably take six months or so to wrap up and hopefully get out in that time. I will be working on those issues. That’s a great concern. Now look James, we’re gonna have this growth. It’s not like we can press a button and make it stop. What you got to go is grow in the right way. You have to really be sensitive to what’s out there. That’s why we put these efforts forth so the public better understands. That was the reason for Forever Green. That will be the reason for the new one. It’s the same thing for the children’s book. It starts with young people and as they grow they need to be learning about these issues. Your question is is it being done that’s my concern. In some places people, governments and communities and developers have been sensitive to the issues but in to many cases they have not been sensitive. That’s why I want to beat this thing home. I want to drill it into people’s heads that we have to growing in the right way.
JC: You wife’s family has owned that land you’re living on before Sherman burned through Georgia.
CL: The land that we live goes back to the 1930s. Some of the land that Rose Lane’s family touches goes back to the King George III land grant. There’s a heritage of ownership – a stewardship of the land. There’s a lot of history and it’s interesting. My wife is very knowledgeable that means she pays attention to what’s going on now. It’s really because of her that I’m doing this.
JC: So we got this Widespread Panic induction coming up Saturday. I wrote their bio for the book and you’re inducting them.
CL: I have the utmost respect for these guys. Of course, I became aware of them I guess around the time they signed with Capricorn. Phillip Walden – that was his pet project and he believed in them so strongly and he brought them to the label. They became an integral part of the label. They were one of the most important artists there. I remember seeing the guys up in Johnny Sandlin’s studio in Alabama. We began to know each other a little bit. They would play a show here and a show there and they’d write to come and I’d go and sit in. And this went on for a number of years and still goes on. Then, of course, also in that process my best friend Buck Williams becomes their agent representative as well as a co-manager for the band. That brought us a little closer I suppose. The relationship just goes on. I have such an admiration for these guys. To me, I would compare it something similar to the Rolling Stones, and that is their work ethic. The guys are constantly working with their nose to they grindstone – writing songs, doing shows, touring, interacting, coming up with new ideas – innovation, using a horn section – they have Randall in there. The personnel has changed. They’ve also - like the Stones and other bands face tragedy, the loss of Mikey was a horrible thing for them. I’m sure there’s been other trials and tribulations they’ve overcome, but the main thing has always been the music – moving forward.
JC: They never really sold out to the record companies.
CL: Absolutely true. They have integrity. They’ve remained true to themselves. They’ve proven that they have a special brand and blend that people like – and I like it. The other thing I would point out that’s been remarkable in their career is the appreciation from the younger crowd – the college students and the way that has continued. Even college students of today – and college students 15 years ago loved the band. Every year they appeal to that crowd. I think that’s a very important part of their success.....
(End of Part One)