Chuck Leavell on the Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones and the Life of a Tree-Man

Dean Budnick on August 13, 2021
Chuck Leavell on the Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones and the Life of a Tree-Man

photo credit: Terry Allen

“Just like I consider myself a student of the piano, I consider myself a student of the environment and of forestry in particular,” observes Chuck Leavell, who is the subject of the new documentary film, The Tree-Man.

The title originates from Leavell’s stewardship of over 2,500 acres of land at his Charlane Plantation in Twiggs County, Ga. The longtime Rolling Stones keyboardist oversees the property with his wife Rose Lane, who initially inherited a 1,000-acre parcel from her grandmother in 1981. The couple was later honored as Georgia Tree Farmers of the Year and, in 1999, they were selected as National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year.

As he explains, “I love performing the management tasks that are necessary to keep our forest healthy. I love the physical exercise of it being outdoors. I love learning about it—learning from others and reading books on the subject. I now have quite a collection of historical forestry books that I have sorted through a number of times. I’ll always go back, find a chapter that I think is interesting and read it to bone up on things.”

Long before Leavell began receiving accolades for his labors in the woods, he garnered plaudits for his efforts in the studio. While he was in his mid-teens, the Birmingham, Ala. native traveled up to Muscle Shoals and contributed to a session. From there, he later relocated to Macon, Ga., where his role on Gregg Allman’s Laid Back album led to a stint in the Allman Brothers Band. He’s gone on to record and tour with, among others, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, John Mayer, The Black Crowes, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Widespread Panic and Gov’t Mule, all of whom offer testimonials in the film, along with the Stones. As Mayer offers, “He is the rarest combination of honky-tonk Southern and rollicking R&B. He will sip wine but play like he’s drunk on whiskey.”

You’ve said that you had some initial misgivings after director Allen Farst suggested The Tree-Man as the title of the film.

When Allen first threw the title at me, I did have some degree of reluctance. But then I gave it a lot of thought and I said, “You know what? It’s like going in the back door instead of the front door.” The other way to try to title it, with something that had to do with music, would have been the obvious choice. This was the nonobvious choice. Once I let that sink in, I really liked the idea.

After all, it’s a big part of my life and it has been since Rose Lane and I moved to the country and started this journey. There’s a great quote that I like to use that came from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith.” And I know that’s true for me. When I’m walking through our forest, it’s like going to church. There’s a great feeling of spirituality and being close to nature. It’s very soothing and refreshing and renewing.

Emerson’s “Nature” is a piece that still resonates today, over 180 years since he wrote it. I imagine that timeless quality also applies to the work you do on your land.

Yes, and there’s a balance to it all as well. We want to make guitars and pianos, we want to build houses and we want to make fine furniture and paper products. But, of course, we also want to have forests for aesthetic reasons. And we want to have forests to sequester that carbon and just for simple beauty.

I’ve been recently going through Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. He was such a great writer and wordsmith. It’s a real pleasure to go through those seasonal changes that he noted so eloquently. There’s something very soothing, very satisfying about going to those early masters.

Speaking of gifted people, so many amazing musicians appear in the film. Is there a particular line that really cracks you up or otherwise resonates?

One of the most endearing was when Eric [Clapton] said that if he ever felt a little uneasy, then he would just look over at me and know that everything was going to be OK. I didn’t expect that comment and it certainly put a smile on my face.

He also suggests that the way that you play is steeped in your Southern upbringing. Does it seem that way to you?

There’s absolutely no doubt about it. My fingers have a Southern accent, and that’s the way it works, man. My parents were very Southern and taught me to be gentlemenly and to be kind to people and to listen well and to appreciate the things that you have. I think there’s something very Southern in all of that. That’s not that to say that it doesn’t exist in other cultures, but it certainly exists very strongly in Southern culture.

Thinking back to when you started out, can you recall the first live performance you witnessed that led you to contemplate music as a career path?

When I was 10 years old, or maybe even a little bit younger, we went with my father to a convention in New Orleans and there was a moment when my sister and my mother went off in one direction and my father said, “Come on, son, we’ll walk down the street.” We wound up in a little club and Lionel Hampton was playing. I didn’t know anything about the vibraphone but he was so amazing. The music was incredible, but also his showmanship—he would throw his mallets up in the air. Of course, he was a great drummer, too—he would do these tricks with the mallets and with the drumsticks when he was on the drums. It just moved me, I’d never seen anything like that.

Then, a couple of years later, my sister had a date with her boyfriend to see Ray Charles in Tuscaloosa, where we grew up. My parents had their own date and they didn’t really want to leave me alone. So they asked Judy if I could go with her. And she gracefully, and graciously, said, “Sure.” So little brother tags along. By then, I’m playing some music—I’m playing some guitar, I’m playing a little bit of piano—but I didn’t have my first band yet by any means.

Ray was amazing but it wasn’t just Ray. Billy Preston was playing B-3, you had the Raelettes, you had Fathead Newman. The dynamics were strong; it was such a tight band and, of course, you had Ray. So that was really a turning point for me. I left there thinking I wasn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that. My goal was to be in a band, not necessarily like that, but a band that could move people the way that band moved me.

Fortunately, many years later, I got to back up Ray Charles on a special event in Rome. I got to tell him what he meant to me and he was just so nice, putting his arm around me and giving me that big smile.

You also eventually explored that big-band concept on your own album.

Yes, my big band record called Chuck Gets Big does kind of harken back to that moment when I saw Ray live with such a great band. That record originated with a live performance, and we took the audience out of it. I have to compliment the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. They’re just magnificent players.

You started out as a session musician while you were in your mid-teens. Can you recall the first time you heard one of those recordings on the radio?

Well before anything was released, I played on a record by a guy named Freddie North at a session in Muscle Shoals. When I was almost 16 years old, I got called to play on this guy’s session not knowing what would happen. I played Hammond B-3 on a song called “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” and, lo and behold, not only did it become a record, but it also became a regional hit. These days, anybody can have a recording studio in their bedroom, in their garage, wherever. But, back then, going into a real recording studio, and the thought of being on a record, was so huge. I mean, it was everything to me.

Once I made up my mind that I wanted to be a musician, the first goal was to get on a record. So when that thing came out and I heard it on the radio I said, “Are you kidding me, man?” It didn’t have my name on it, but I knew I was in those grooves. And that just set me on fire to say, “I think I can do this. Matter of fact, I think I just did do this. And I’d like to do more of it is as soon as possible.” [Laughs.]

You tell a wonderful story of waiting outside the building in Muscle Shoals, biding your time, so that you could have an opportunity to walk in and potentially contribute.

I have to thank my friend Marlin Greene, who was an engineer there and a musician himself. He was the one who would say, “Just hang out, man. And, when that door opens, come inside and see me. I’ll show you around and see if I can get you in.” He was so nice and gracious to do that.

From there, you moved to Macon, Ga., where you began appearing on some of the Capricorn Records sessions, which eventually resulted in you joining the Allman Brothers Band. What led you to Macon?

First off, I should say that, when I was young, I used to go see Gregg and Duane [Allman] when they were still the Allman Joys at this place called Fort Brandon Armory in Tuscaloosa. I was wowed not only by the two of them but also by the band they had at the time. I saw them four or five times way back then. I continued to follow them when they were the Hour Glass. I bought both of those Hour Glass records and kind of studied them. I was a fan and, eventually, it was Paul Hornsby, who was in the Hour Glass, who became my mentor when they broke up. He moved back to Tuscaloosa and we started playing in bands together. He was very encouraging to me and showed me a lot of things on the keys because he was quite good at it. When he moved to Macon, I followed him because I thought, “Well, if Paul’s going there then there’s gotta be something to it.”

You’ve played on so many records over the years. Is there one that jumps out because it felt incredible but, for whatever reason, didn’t get the recognition that you think it merits?

We did so many records during the Capricorn era. Bonnie Bramlett’s Lady’s Choice had some good stuff on it. I thought that it would sell better—and get more recognition—than it did. Much later, I did a record with Dave Edmunds called Closer to the Flame. I thought that it was a really good record but it just didn’t get as much attention as I thought it should. So those two come to mind.

After Duane passed, you became the Allman Brothers’ second lead instrument and helped reinvigorate the band. How did you initially envision your role?

I had been called in to play on Gregg’s solo record, Laid Back, which was quite a different flavor than the Allman Brothers. It had a lot more of the melodic stuff that Gregg had written, like “Multi-Colored Lady,” on it. But there were also these late-night, after-hours jams going on that included the Allman Brothers.

So I came down but I was making no conscious effort to sit in and be an Allman Brother. I was just playing to the music and saying to myself: “Wow, this is fun. How can I do something that enhances the whole?” This went on for two or three weeks and then I got a call from Phil Walden saying, “I want to see you in my office.” I thought, “Oh, God, what have I done wrong?” but, when I walked in, all the Allman Brothers were in the room. And eventually the shoe dropped—“The guys feel good about what’s happening. Would you like to join the band?” Well, you could’ve blown me over with a feather. I really did not expect that but it just seemed like such a natural progression.

As I said, there was no conscious effort to try to be an Allman Brother or anything. It was just, “Hey, man, this is fun. What can I do to make this interesting?” I like to think that I’m a pretty good listener. So, when Dickey Betts was playing guitar, I was all over it, listening to what he was doing and trying to find a way to complement it. Then, when Jaimoe and Butch were laying down those rhythms, I tried to come up with something that would complement them. So that was my thought process.

When the Allman Brothers Band took a hiatus in 1976, you formed Sea Level with the ABB’s Jaimoe and Lamar Williams, along with guitarist Jimmy Nalls. Sea Level incorporated jazz, funk and rock in a manner that anticipated today’s jambands and certainly influenced some of them. What was your vision for the group?

I don’t consider myself to be any kind of great singer, so the vision was to have a band that was part-instrumental and part-vocal. I thought I would sing a couple of songs but I really wanted to focus as much as possible on the music, the instrumentals. One of my favorite groups at the time was the Crusaders, originally the Jazz Crusaders— Joe Sample and that whole crowd. We weren’t trying to be them exactly, but I did, subconsciously, use that group as a role model in order to make us a little more rockand-roll and a little bit more Southern. We even hired Stewart Levine to produce us because he had produced a lot of those Crusaders records.

The idea was, “Let’s do something a little different” because we kind of had this split personality. As we went forward into the next record, a few things happened—Jaimoe began to have some back problems and he wanted to drop out. So I said, “Well, if changes are coming, I would like to go even further and find somebody that I think would be a good vocalist and a good multi-instrumentalist. So I thought of my friend Randall Bramblett. And when I approached Randall, he said, “I’m definitely interested but how would you feel about also bringing in my friend Davis Causey?” Of course, Davis plays guitar so I went to Jimmy Nalls and he said, “Yeah, by all means, man. We could do some fun things with the harmony lines on our guitars.”

So the face of the band changed pretty dramatically on that second record and going forward through the fifth record. Of course, the other skill I was looking for was Randall’s songwriting. He’s such a great songwriter—good Lord, his last three or four records are just absolutely amazing. So I was very pleased to have him as a partner. I thought he had a great voice, and it made me feel a little bit more comfortable to have someone that I could harmonize with, somebody I could share vocal duties with.

Are you aware if someone is sitting on a stash of archival live Sea Level tapes?

We tried to track down something in particular for the film but we couldn’t quite find it. Early on, we did the Montreux Jazz Fest when the band was just a quartet.

I remember, many years later, when the Stones played in Switzerland, Claude Nobs—the main guy for the festival—invited us to his home. We went there and he had this sound system running through his house, playing everybody that had ever performed at Montreaux. He had the Sea Level stuff and I remember thinking, “Wow, that sounds pretty good.” So I know that the recordings exist and I know that some video exists—and we really wanted to get it for the film. But Claude is long dead now, unfortunately, and it’s not so easy to get to those archives.

The film relates how The Rolling Stones came to identify you as their musical director. It began with you encouraging them to diversify their setlists. That seems like a relatively bold move. Do you remember if you put a lot of thought into the proper way to express that idea to them?

That was for the Steel Wheels tour. I think all the guys kind of felt that way. The tour before Steel Wheels was back in 1982, and they played the same set every night, with no changes, for like 30 shows or something. So I felt very strongly that we should mix it up a bit more to honor the body of work. Of course, there were new songs that needed to be played, so we knew those songs were going to be on the agenda for sure. But I just said, “Guys, I’m a fan. So let’s look at some of those deep cuts from Beggars Banquet, Exile on Main St., Sticky Fingers and all that. You don’t just have to play the hits.”

Hopefully, that had at least a little bit of an influence on the guys wanting to open up and explore that incredible catalog a little deeper. I think it was also the fact that I started taking all those copious notes once we were rehearsing those songs because they hadn’t played them in a long time. So I did a lot of homework. I listened to the records and wrote all these things down. Luckily, I had a great roadie at the time, Andy Topeka—God rest his soul. And Andy said, “It’s too important just to let these kind of just float around.” So he went out and got a notebook with the plastic sleeves and started archiving all that stuff. That continued after Steel Wheels. I think the next tour was Voodoo Lounge and we did the same thing.

And even if we were rehearsing in between tours or whatever, I always had a pen and paper handy just to make any notes of changes or to help out if we did a song that we hadn’t done in ages. That’s what kind of led to them to look to me for help with drafting the setlist—and to help remind people where the middle eight is, where the solos go and that sort of thing. It’s a huge body of work, and I can’t keep it all in my head. I have to go back and reference those books.

One reason that they appreciated and listened to me is because I am such a fan. I said, “Mick, I played these songs with my first band, the Misfits. ‘The Last Time’ was one of the first guitar riffs I ever learned and there are a lot of fans out here who would like to hear these other songs.” These days, it’s a bit of a challenge because we’re going to do a two-hour show and how much can you do in two hours? If you don’t do “Jumping Jack Flash” or “Start Me Up” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—those songs that people love and expect to hear—it becomes a conundrum. How much time do you have to do the other deep tracks? We work hard at it, man, but it’s a challenge.

Eric Clapton appeared with the Stones a number of times during the Steel Wheels tour, which led him to invite you to join him for a series of dates at the Royal Albert Hall in 1991. Then Clapton offered to back George Harrison—with a band that you were a part of—on a tour of Japan. When you think back on those shows, what first comes to mind?

Oh, my God, what an incredible human being George Harrison was, what a sweet person. He was so affectionate, big hearted and down-to-earth. I had done a session with him many years before that with Dave Edmunds, who used to call me quite a lot to do session work on his records and on a bunch of other people’s records. This was for a movie soundtrack and he said, “We got George Harrison coming.” I said, “Are you kidding me, man? Good Lord!” So George sang this Dylan song called, “I Don’t Want to Do It,” which I don’t think had ever been recorded until we did it. Anyway, he came in and I don’t know what I was expecting, but we got this really sweet guy who smiled a lot and had a beautiful chuckle and was very engaged. So that was a great experience. But when we realized that Eric had made that offer to George, I did a backflip. Everybody had their favorite Beatle and, don’t tell Paul McCartney this, but George was mine.

I think that George was grateful to Eric because he was nervous about doing the tour. He hadn’t toured in ages at that point in time. So everybody in the band felt it was our job to put him at ease, make him feel comfortable, learn those songs and do them justice. And what an experience it was to get to play the harpsichord part on “Piggies” or the piano part on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It was such an honor and he was gracious beyond understanding. I remember it was Thanksgiving and, of course, that’s not a holiday that the English actually celebrate that much. But George and his wife Olivia had everybody over for Thanksgiving. They put together this incredible layout of food. Then he said, “Hey, let’s go walk the gardens; let me show you the studio.”

We went to his house several times after that as well. He was always so gracious about it. Another thing George and I had in common was our love of plant life, our love of the outdoors. His gardens were just unbelievable and he was very much, in his own way, an environmentalist.

It’s a real treat to see another prominent environmentalist in the film: President Jimmy Carter.

I’m not sure how many people realize that he saved millions of acres of land under his administration. He also put solar panels up on the White House but then Reagan ripped them down, which is unbelievable.

Bringing this all this way around, how would you articulate the relationship between your life as a tree-man and the music that you create?

What hits home is that both things offer an opportunity to leave a legacy. I’ve had a marvelous opportunity to maintain a direct connection with the land and I have a great love for that resource. The mantra of every good land owner I know is that you want to leave the land in better shape than you found it. So that’s our goal. That’s what we try to do every day on our place.