Chuck Leavell leaves his Middle Georgia farm to tour with the Stones

Atlanta show promises to be a homecoming for the celebrated musician and tree farmer.
Chuck Leavell at his Charlane Woodlands & Preserve in Dry Branch.
Courtesy of Allen Farst

Credit: Allen Farst

Credit: Allen Farst

Chuck Leavell at his Charlane Woodlands & Preserve in Dry Branch. Courtesy of Allen Farst

During a recent week off from the Rolling Stones’ current U.S. tour, the band’s keyboardist and musical director wasn’t lounging around at a swanky resort or jetting off to a private island retreat. Those hedonistic pursuits are for pampered rock stars. For Twiggs County-based multi-instrumentalist Chuck Leavell, the break was much better spent resting in his own studio in the Middle Georgia town of Dry Branch.

“This is my resort. Why would I want to go anywhere else?” said the affable musician during a recent phone chat. “I get to check on our projects out here in the woods, because we’ll be harvesting this season. It’s just nice to see things around here and be a family guy for a minute.”

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Musician Chuck Leavell has played alongside some of the most famous rock bands. He told Monica Pearson he played concert tuba for two years in school.

In addition to his duties as co-owner of a tree farm, Leavell, 72, routinely has a heaping helping of other projects on his plate. This year, in addition to his duties with the Stones, he has made time for a few other musical performances, most notably club gigs with old pals Warren Haynes, Ivan Neville and Duane Betts in New Orleans.

Although he’s called Georgia home since 1970, Leavell grew up in Alabama and is making plans to honor his Southern heritage for an upcoming recording concept.

“Since I have roots in both places, we have an idea to do a kind of a tribute to the history of music from both states. Of course, it’s wonderful to have Macon’s Capricorn space back up and running. I’ve been doing some work there with various things, and that’s certainly where I would start the next projects.”

The Rolling Stones, including Chuck Leavell (left) and Mick Jagger, last played Atlanta in 2021. Photos: courtesy Chuck Leavell

Credit: Chuck Leavell

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Credit: Chuck Leavell

His association with the legendary Capricorn Records has endured since the early ‘70s, beginning with his early studio sessions with the label’s fledgling roster, including Alex Taylor and Gregg Allman. In 1973, after the tragic deaths of band members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, Leavell joined the Allman Brothers Band, and his distinctive keyboard style is featured on many of their most popular recordings. Then, as the Brothers began to splinter in the mid-70s, he led the Allman-bred rock and jazz-fusion side-project Sea Level. By 1982, the Stones had invited him to join their touring band, further adding star-power to his impressive resume.

Yet, as much as Leavell is celebrated for his musicianship, he is equally revered for his work in conservation and sustainable tree farming. His tree farm and homeplace Charlane Woodlands & Preserve was launched when his wife Rose Lane Leavell inherited an estate in the early 1980s. Their spread has since sprawled to encompass around 4000 acres including protected forest and lodges where they regularly host art and hunting retreats.

Along the way, the couple and their staff have been lauded for their farming practices and conservancy efforts, including two honors as Georgia Tree Farmers of the Year. In 2012, Leavell received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy as well as an Honorary Forest Ranger award from the United States Forest Service.

“I always say I’m just as honored to get a music award as I am whenever we get recognized for conservation,” he said. “I love both worlds pretty much equally, even though they are so totally different.”

Leavell has shared his know-how with the publishing world, producing several books on tree farming, conservancy and smart growth. Later this year, he plans to update his 2004 memoir, “Between Rock and a Home Place,” further detailing the fruits of his dual pursuits.

For several years now, he’s been working on the PBS television series “America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell.” Shot on location, each episode focuses on the forests and preservations efforts in a given location. Plans are in the works to expand the series with a new installment of episodes.

Chuck Leavell on his South Georgia farm.
Courtesy of Allen Farst

Credit: Courtesy photo/Allen Farst

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Credit: Courtesy photo/Allen Farst

Meanwhile, the 2020 documentary “Chuck Leavell — The Tree Man” directed by Allen Farst is streaming on a variety of digital services including Prime Video, The Roku Channel and Pluto TV.

But at the moment, Leavell’s busy calendar is centered around performance dates with his “British brethren” the Rolling Stones, touring in support of their recently released “Hackney Diamonds” album.

Joining Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood on stage are bassist Darryl Jones, drummer Steve Jordan and additional keyboardist Matt Clifford. Saxophonists Karl Denson and Tim Ries plus vocalists Bernard Fowler and Chanelle Haynes round out the talented troupe.

Sponsored by AARP, the tour kicked off in late April in Houston with a set list that included “Beast of Burden,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Paint It Black.” Having last played Atlanta in 2021, the band is slated to return on June 7 to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

After early session work in Alabama, Chuck Leavell moved to Georgia to become a studio musician at Capricorn Records in the early '70s.
Courtesy of Allen Farst

Credit: Allen Farst

icon to expand image

Credit: Allen Farst

“Every time we’ve played in the state of Georgia has been an incredibly special show,” said Leavell. “I always get a very, very warm reception when I’m introduced, too, so it’s pretty much like playing at home. I feel the energy from the audience, and all the guys love Atlanta as well. It’s like playing in my backyard!”

As musical director of the tour, Leavell helps set the tone for the show.

“Mick and Keith are the main musical directors of the Rolling Stones,” he said diplomatically, “But I try to work hard to help create the (set) list and arrangements during the rehearsal process, making sure we all know the tunes and so forth.”

Everyone has input on the set list, and creating one is no easy task, considering the Stones’ vast catalog.

“You want to have the familiar songs and all the things that people love and want to hear,” he continued. “But we do have a new record out, so it’s important to include things from it. But it’s also good to try to go with some deep tracks every now and then and include some really unusual things. The fans notice.”

The band has prepared 60 or 70 songs for this tour, which Leavell said is pretty standard, adding that rehearsals are his favorite time with the band.

“We’re exploring the deep catalog, trying some things out, knowing that we’re experimenting to see what feels good and what works best,” he said. “You want to see what works best in any given category, whether it’s the iconic songs, ballads, country-flavored songs or soul and R&B.”

Leavell considers his tenure with the band a natural progression of his own extensive musical exploration. “I started playing music because I truly loved to play, then I got into the Capricorn world, joined the Allmans and this Stones gig came along. I thought it might last three, four or five years — at the most,” he said. “Little did I think in my wildest dreams, 42 years later I’d still be doing this with the Rolling Stones. It’s a true blessing.”

He paused, seeming to reflect for a moment. “Look, the thing is, none of us take this for granted,” he continued. “The fact is, I think all of us could be doing other things and we’d survive and be just fine, but the fact that the Stones want to play their music for people and to keep on creating new stuff, it’s just remarkable.”

With a nod toward deceased Stones drummer Charlie Watts and Dickie Betts, guitarist-singer-songwriter for the Allman Brothers, Leavell said, “Of course, we all miss our former bandmates. I think we bring them along with us, every single time we play. I truly believe that, and I feel them, so that fact makes it a real honor to continue to be a part of it all. It lifts our spirits to look out there and see all the seats filled with people clapping their hands and moving to the music with smiles on their faces. That’s pretty much why we all keep doing it.”


The Rolling Stones. 8 p.m. June 7. Ghost Hounds open. $78 and up. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 1 AMB Drive NW, Atlanta. 470-341-5000, 1-800-653-8000,