Chuck Leavell's face glows when he talks about his passions: music and saving the land.
Seated in a quiet corner of a Buckhead coffee-shop, the famed keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and other major acts smiles frequently as he ranges from his old buddy Keith Richards to the tree farm he owns in rural Bullard in Twiggs County, Ga.
Leavell was in town to speak at the Nature Conservancy's 17th annual Hootchie Earth Day event, held Friday night at the Tophat Soccer Fields in Buckhead. Along with his music and conservation efforts, he's also an author, recently releasing his newest book "Growing a Better America."
A noted authority on forestry and the environment, Leavell works with such organizations as the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund in their efforts to protect the earth, "the very kind of things we ought to be doing more of in this country," he says.
A founder of the Mother Nature Network, an Atlanta-based website devoted to environmental issues, Leavell says his tree farm, Charlane Plantation, is where he puts his environmental beliefs into practice. The family of his wife, Rose Lane, worked the land for generations.
When he started dating his future wife in 1971, when he was connected with Capricorn Records in Macon, he visited the land and noted her family's "deep respect and love for the land." Leavell says their reverence for the land "began to rub off on me" and in 1981, when Rose Lane's grandmother died, they inherited the place they called "the homeplace." He says quietly, "it became our responsibility to carry this on."
The land was "a beautiful gift" that led him to engage with the forest, which he notes provides the wood for his instruments as well as a range of other products and gives habitat to a variety of species. He began studying forestry and conservation, eventually writing "Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest: and "The Tree Farmer," a children's book. He is also the author of an autobiography, "Between Rock and a Home Place."
A native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who started piano at age 6 when his mother began teaching him, Leavell said he knew at an early age that he wanted to be a professional musician.
While pursuing a committed agrarian life in rural Georgia, Leavell has gained fame as the Rolling Stones' keyboardist and pianist since 1981. Before that, he was a member of the Allman Brothers. He's also played with Eric Clapton and an impressive lineup of other musical stars. In May, he will begin a recording project with John Mayer, another artist with whom he's performed.
Also a sucessful recording artist, Leavell is now engaged in a project about which he's particularly proud, a compilation of material from now obscure piano pioneers from the 1920s through 1950s.
"They paved the way for musicians like myself," he says. He picked the songs on the album, "Back to the Woods," which will be on Evergreen Records and released from mid-August to mid-September.
He's recording the album in Athens, and Richards, Mayer and the Atlanta legend Col. Bruce Hamption are among guest artists. He returns to the studio this week, with vintage R&B singer Candi Staton joining the project.
"I play in my style, but their style influenced me," he says about the recording. "It's been such a fun project that I hate to see it end. There's an opportunity to do more down the road."
He says the idea came from his son-in-law, Steve Bransford," who's involved in visual arts and roots music. "He said nobody has paid homage to the players from the '30s, '40s and '50s; would you like to be involved in doing that? I thought what a great idea."
Looking ahead, Leavell said he hopes the Rolling Stones conduct a tour next year for their 50th anniversary. Leavell points out that Mick Jagger, Richards and mates have set a standard for constancy. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a band still intact that's been around as long." A tour would be "a great opportunity to celebrate a remarkable career." He said that such a tour is under discussion, although no announcement has been made.
He said he enjoyed Richards' memoirs, in which Richards is "so honest and open." A friend of Richards for 30 years, he smiles and says, "most of the stories I'd heard before, but some were new to me." He says the book "has a lot of insight about how he developed as a person and a musician." Once known for his hard-core drug use, Richards is now a devoted family man, Leavell said. "He still has a passion for the music."
When the interview's over, Leavell says goodbye with a warm smile and heads off into the blustery afternoon, a man at peace with himself, his music and the land.