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Leavell's non-music endeavors daunting

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

MACON -- When supporters of the GraceWay Recovery Residence convinced keyboard great Chuck Leavell to play a benefit concert for the facility, they probably didn't realize how perfect their timing was.

Leavell, who enjoyed one career with the greatest Southern Rock band of all time -- the Allman Brothers Band -- and is in the middle of another with perhaps the greatest, easily the most enduring, rock band ever -- the Rolling Stones -- is not a man with a lot of free time.

When he's not recording, rehearsing or touring with the Stones, Leavell might be working on his middle Georgia tree farm with wife Rose Lane, pushing environmental causes personally or via his well-received Web site The Mother Nature Network, writing yet another book or heading to a studio to record with any number of musical artists anxious to work with him.

"Since I came off the last Stones tour in the summer of '07, I've started planning a solo (musical) project, my partner Joel Babbitt and I launched the Mother Nature Network Web site -- which in one year has become the third-most visited independent environmental site in the world -- and I'm about halfway through the first draft of the book 'Growing America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable' with Jeff Craig," Leavell said during a recent extended conversation. "I don't have a lot of downtime.

"I'm taking advantage of this opportunity to work on some of my own interests. Because if the phone rings tomorrow and Mick (Jagger) says 'let's go do a tour,' that will become my focus."

Leavell might have mentioned that also since the last Stones mega-tour, he played a solo tour of Europe that led to the release of the double live CD "Chuck Leavell Live in Germany."

Enjoying what has become a rare extended period away from working with the Stones, Leavell has managed to squeeze time for the GraceWay benefit, which will be held Feb. 5 at the Albany Municipal Auditorium, onto his schedule.

"It's a great cause, so I'm excited about that," he said. "But I'm also looking forward to doing a solo project. You folks are going to get naked, bare-bones Chuck. It's a challenge, but one I'm excited about.

"I'm working to put together a show that will be a great experience for the people in Albany."

As prominent a name as Leavell's is in musical circles, he is no doubt the only rock star who also has environmental, farming and writing groupies, many of whom are oblivious to his day job.

Leavell developed his passion and respect for the land gradually through Rose Lane, his wife of 37 years. When her grandmother passed away in 1981 and left the couple her family home place, Leavell's level of interest immediately grew exponentially.

"I took carrying on the heritage of Rose Lane's family as a serious responsibility," he said. "I went on a self-journey to prepare myself: I read books, government literature, talked with other farmers. I studied row crops, fruit trees, cattle, forestry.

"I was touring with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1980 (post-Allmans, pre-Stones) when I decided that I would concentrate on forestry. First of all, I was fascinated with it after having always taken trees and all they provide us for granted. But it was something I could do and continue to tour."

Leavell did not take the new phase of his life lightly. His return to the land led him to get involved in environmental and stewardship causes, and he eventually wrote a pair of books based on his experiences: the children's book "The Tree Farmer" and the acclaimed "Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest." (Leavell's third book, the autobiography "Between Rock and a Home Place," is perhaps his most well-reviewed.)

In 1999, Chuck and Rose Lane were named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year, which led to active advocacy on behalf of the Georgia Forestry Association. Leavell has spoken to state and national lawmakers in Atlanta and Washington about forestry issues and is an in-demand speaker on any number of environmental issues.

"The folks with the Forestry Association said that my 'unusual story' might get some people interested in important issues who might not otherwise have gotten involved," he said. "And certainly the dichotomy of rock and roll and environmentalism raises some eyebrows and opens some doors.

"But I'm careful never to abuse my musical audience. I'm not going to beat them over the head for my cause ... I'll leave that to Bono. I don't mind mentioning something in passing, but I'm not going to make a big deal of it at a musical event."

The deeper Leavell got involved with forestry and environmental issues, the more he felt there was a need to provide a clearinghouse of information for others with similar interests.

"There are some great Web sites out there that are produced by the government or by other groups that focus on particular issues," he said. "We thought there was a need for a site that encompasses all issues: from electric cars to wind and solar power to climate change. And we wanted it written so that anyone could understand it.

"The Mother Nature Network (mnn.com) launched in January of '09, and in a year it has become the seventh-most visited environmental site on the Web. If you cull the government and other group sites, it is the third-most visited independent site in the world."

Music fans who take in the GraceWay show Feb. 5 will get a retrospective taste of the music Leavell has played with the Allman Brothers, with the Stones, with his late-70s band Sea Level and a helping of the great blues pianists of the '30s and '40s -- men like Skip James, Otis Spann, Little Brother Montgomery -- and even a little Ray Charles thrown in for local flavor.

Leavell is planning a tribute album to the early blues keyboard pioneers, which he'll start working on in the next few months.

"I try to set goals," the multitalented artist says. "There's just so much that I want to do. Whether it's in the music I play or addressing the waste I see while traveling. I'm just one of those people who's been able to focus on the things that matter to me.

"I can't imagine living out my life sitting in front of a TV set or on the front porch in a rocking chair. I'll rest when I'm dead, man."