Chuck Leavell: Rolling Stones ‘at their best’ playing the blues

Chuck Leavell (from left) performs keyboards onstage with Ron Wood and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. (Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

Combined ShapeCaption
Chuck Leavell (from left) performs keyboards onstage with Ron Wood and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. (Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

Prototypical rock stars don’t resemble Chuck Leavell.

In the midst of having a record on the charts — Leavell tickles the keys on the Rolling Stones’ latest, “Blue & Lonesome” — the Georgia resident finds himself planting 70 to 80 acres of longleaf and loblolly pines.

“Yeah, I’ve shifted into tree farmer mode now,” Leavell said, laughing over the phone from his Charlane Plantation in Dry Branch.

Yet, his roots remain firmly planted in entertainment. The year 2016 found him manning the keyboards for Pink Floyd alumnus David Gilmour at iconic venues such as the ruins of Pompeii and Circus Maximus in Rome. And, in addition to collaborating with the Stones, his resume includes having played keyboards with the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, George Harrison and countless others.

The hits keep on coming, too. As co-founder of the Mother Nature Network, Leavell has seen its website become the most-visited environmental site on the planet, with about 7 million to 8 million unique visits per month. And, its parent company, Narrative Content Group, not only operates its own websites, but works with mega brands such as CNN and Discovery Communications.

Still, Leavell somehow manages to come off as grounded as the trees he plants and nurtures, even when talking about the new disc from a little blues band out of England.

Q: After just three days in the studio, the Stones had the makings of their first album in more than a decade. That surprised fans, and I understand you were surprised, too.

A: The core band had gone in the studio in London just to see if they had anything to experiment with that might develop into something new. And I think, as a warmup, it might have been (producer) Don Was who said, "Let's play one of those blues songs that you guys do so well." And they did. It turned out great. Don got it down on tape. Then, they decided to do another one of those, and another and another. And, within three days, they had 12 really great blues basic tracks. I heard about this, and naturally I thought, "Oh, man. They did a blues record and they didn't call me? What's up with that?" So, we got to Latin America earlier this year for a tour. Keith corners me pretty quickly and says, "Hey, man. You've got to come to my room. I have to play you this stuff." So, I did, and he said, "Chuck, I know you weren't there, but don't worry about it. We got to get you on there." That came as a great relief, because everything I heard was just fantastic. Mick did the same thing, virtually. … So, as soon as I got back from the tour, I got up with Don. He told me he was going to New Orleans for another project, and to meet him there, and we would (do some overdubs). We went to a wonderful studio called the Parlor. And they had this lovely upright piano that we used, keeping in character with the sounds that they'd already gotten in London.

Q: You've been playing with the Stones for nearly 35 years. Did you hear a newfound passion or energy on those tracks? If there's one thing the members of the Rolling Stones agree on, it's their passion for the blues.

A: There's no doubt about it. It was obvious from the get-go that the guys are at their best in part when doing this type of music. You know, some of the best jams, rehearsals and sound checks we've ever had, in my opinion, is when the band is playing this kind of music. They just do it so well. And, we all know the history when Mick and Keith met in that train station dock, and Keith noticed Mick had blues albums under his arm. … This goes to the core of the band's history, and it didn't surprise me at all when I heard how good it sounded. And, another happy accident occurred when Eric Clapton was in the studio next door. Of course, the guys invited him in, and he's on a couple of tracks. It's one of the best accidents in my memory (laughs).

Q: What sort of head space did you get into when playing on the record?

A: First of all, don't forget my last record, which is a little over two years old now, is a tribute to blues piano players. It's called "Back to the Woods." I'm covering and celebrating artists like Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Jesse James, some pretty obscure cats. Of course, there's an Otis Spann track on there, and he's certainly one of my heroes. And Ray Charles, of course. Growing up in Alabama, are you kidding me? I cut my teeth on this stuff. Mississippi Fred McDowell used to play in Tuscaloosa in these little coffee houses and honky tonks. Johnny Shines would come through often. I was very young at the time, 15 or 16 years old, but I was able to sneak in and see this action. So, it certainly came very naturally to me.

Q: In addition to your music career and business projects, what else do you have planned for 2017?

A: I just finished a TV pilot, a 30-minute program we hope will become a series. It's called "America's Forests With Chuck Leavell." The pilot is centered around the state of Oregon. We went to Oregon and did three segments on issues up there. One was wildfires, (another) was environmental concerns, and the other one was on cross laminated timber. That's a methodology that makes it possible to make skyscrapers out of wood instead of steel and concrete. It was really great to do the segments. I enjoyed that process immensely. We don't know if we'll get the funding to do a series, but the pilot is finished. It will be on public television networks first. … I'm hoping we're successful with that, and I'd love to get a 13-part series with it. There are a million stories you can tell about America's forests.