Even as Chuck Leavell watches Mick Jagger for cues or listens to Keith Richards’ riffs, his mind sometimes drifts from rock ‘n’ roll to the trees and seedlings on his 2,200-acre farm in central Georgia.
Being part of one of the world’s great rock bands is just one side of Leavell, who tours with the Rolling Stones but always returns to Charlane Plantation eager to get his hands dirty again.
“Part of my job is to really keep a close eye on Mick. They look to me for changes, and to signal to let them know the verse or chorus. There’s a point when you’re getting into the music and you’re feeling it, then you start to coast,” he says. “That’s when I think, ‘Geez, I wonder if I got any rain back home,’ or ‘I wonder how the dogs are doing, if the dog had a litter of pups.’
“You can’t wait to get back home and ride the horses or get in the truck and drive.”
The tree farm that Leavell shares with his wife, Rose Lane, is more than just a celebrity’s pet project.
Leavell is so devoted to forestry and conservation that he’s written a book, “Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest.” He’s also produced a companion CD, which features some Leavell’s music.
Leavell knew nothing about tree farming in 1981, when his wife inherited a 1,200-acre farm after her grandmother died. The couple raised their daughters on the farm and Leavell, who was between music gigs, took a forestry correspondence course.
Even though Leavell earned critical acclaim with the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton and the Black Crowes among others, he thought it was a joke when the Stones asked him to audition in 1981. The next year, the band tapped Leavell for their European tour, and he’s been their keyboardist ever since.
Eyes glazed over when he first chatted up his bandmates about trees, but over time he helped raise their awareness of conservation issues.
“Chuck is always talking about trees,” Jagger says. “But his passion for forestry is undeniable, and he’s made some strong contributions to the environment through that passion.”
Driving down a dirt road leading up to the Twiggs County farm, visitors notice rows of pine, dogwood, hickory and oak trees lining the pathway to the Leavell’s 1870s farmhouse. Family pictures, some from the early 1900s, fill the walls alongside gold albums, forestry awards and Rose Lane’s paintings. The property also includes a hunting preserve.
“I love to quail-hunt,” he says. “As a musician who goes out and works in big cities and plays to large crowds, in clubs or wherever it might be, I cannot tell you the importance of being able to come back here and sink back into nature.”
As a youth, Leavell spent three years on a small farm outside of Montgomery, Ala. “My memories of that are my sister and I playing in the creeks…. I remember my father plowing the garden with a horse and a plow. I think somehow that got into my blood.”
Leavell, who was named National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in 1999, has been recognized by the American Forest Foundation, the Georgia Conservancy and the National Arbor Day Foundation. He and his wife are also spokesmen for the Georgia Forestry Association.
The couple met in 1972 while she worked at Capricorn Records in Macon. He had been touring with Dr. John and was working on the Allman Brothers’ album, “Brothers and Sisters.” They have been married for 28 years.
“Oh, it’s a team thing,” she says. “I guess everybody looks to me for guidance out here since Chuck’ll be gone a lot of times.”
With a cookbook in the works, she also paints, manages the hunting cottage and runs their new company, Evergreen Arts, which makes and markets books, CDs and clothing.
A typical day, when Leavell isn’t touring, usually starts at 5:30 a.m. He’s likely to hook up a disc harrow and start clearing fields so he can sprinkle seeds for wildlife feed plots.
Leavell has no plans to give up touring or recording, but he will always return to the farm.
“Somehow that farm experience early on in my childhood stayed in my subconscious and was just trying to find a way to resurface,” he says. “It’s a passion to both of us, an intense passion.”