When Chuck Leavell was 30 years old, he found himself in the midst of a career-related quandary. The Alabama-born keyboardist had spent the better part of the decade playing with the Allman Brothers; now, he was doing gigs with a trio in small clubs around Macon, Georgia. But he'd developed an affinity for forestry, spending much of his free time tending to the trees on the 1,000 acre-farm owned by his wife's family, and was thinking of making it his full-time job.
He came home one day and began relaying these thoughts and concerns to his wife, Rose Lane. Perhaps, Leavell mused, he'd accomplished everything he could as a musician, and it was time to focus on something else for the long-term.
"My career wasn't really going anywhere," Leavell recalls over lunch at a Manhattan diner. "I said to my wife, 'Honey, you know, I'm really debating what to do with myself. I'm playing these clubs, but I'm not really getting any calls for recording, I think maybe I ought to just focus on the forestry.' She listens to me whinge and moan for a minute. Then she says, 'That's all well and good, but the Rolling Stones called today.'"
Leavell called back the next day and left a message; within hours, the group's existing keyboardist Ian Stewart (they wanted to have two) called him back and said the Stones would like to fly Leavell to the U.K. for an introduction as soon as possible. "I'm playing this club this weekend, can I come up on Sunday?" Leavell asked. "We'd really like to have you here tomorrow," Stewart replied. Leavell called the club, and they told him he'd be crazy not to skip the show; they'd find someone to fill in.
Within months, Leavell was traveling with the Rolling Stones on their 1982 European tour; the next year, he worked on their album Undercover. When Stewart died of a heart attack in 1985, Leavell became the group's sole keyboardist at a tense time for the band ("Keith really wanted to tour but Mick didn't, and he wanted to do a solo record.") Leavell ended up working on Mick's solo record, Keith's solo record, and eventually for the album Steel Wheels and the accompanying tour, becoming the group's unofficial musical director in charge of culling a catalog of 400-500 songs into a coherent set list every night.
If a rolling stone gathers no moss, though, Leavell proved to be the exception to the proverb. Even as his musical career blossomed, he acquired 1500 acres of forested land (in which there was undoubtedly a large quantity of moss) in addition to the 1000 acres eventually inherited by Rose Lane.
"My wife's family have been farmers for generations," he explains. "They were so gracious to me and I began to have a sense for their passion for the land ... the more time I spent, the more dedicated I became because of the way they felt."
Leavell's interest in forestry proved to be an ideal hobby for a musician, as it allowed him plenty of time to tour and didn't require daily maintenance. Sitting around and watching trees, after all, doesn't make them grow any faster. He also realized that his professional work was tied very intimately to the forest--his instrument, after all, was made of wood.
"One 'aha!' moment was when I asked myself, 'Chuck, you idiot, where does your instrument come from?'" he says. "I knew that, of course, but I never had given that connection much thought. That maple tree grows for decades; finally it's harvested, cut down and crafted into this instrument. Then spruce is added to the equation for the sound board, then the wires and hammers become involved."
As Leavell's musical profile grew, so, too, did his stature in the environmental world. After enrolling in a correspondence course in forestry and a number of years managing his own property with his wife, local conservationists began to take note (says Leavell: "They were like, 'Man, what's this rock-and-roll guy doing with these trees?'") In 1992, he became the spokesperson for the Georgia Forestry Association; he and his wife were named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999. Two years later, he began work on his first book, Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest.
Meanwhile, the gigs continued to flow. Leavell joined the Stones on their epic Bigger Bang tour from 2005 to 2007; the tour went on to gross$558 million, making it the most lucrative of all time until U2's 360 tour broke the record this summer. Unlike the four members of U2, the Rolling Stones didn't split all profits evenly. That's fine by Leavell, who prefers the freedom of working with different groups.
"I'm a hired gun, I come in, I'm contracted for a record or a tour," he says. "To be frank with you, that suits me very well. When the tours or recording sessions are over, that gives me opportunity to go elsewhere."
In recent years, he's worked with Eric Clapton, Blues Traveler, George Harrison, John Mayer and others. When he's not collaborating with other artists, he records solo work--most recently, Live in Germany, an album recorded on his Green Leaves and Blue Notes tour in Europe. He's also continued to hone his literary chops, releasing the children's book The Tree Farmer in 2006 and last year, a conservationist title called Growing a Better America.
Leavell's latest project: an eco-themed website called Mother Nature Network, co-founded with ad man Joel Babbit. Established in 2008, the site boasts a full-time staff of 25 writers, editors and producers; revenues jumped from $3 million in 2009 to $6 million in 2010. Leavell says MNN's traffic has grown to 11 million pageviews per month, thanks to traffic from over 200 countries.
"This is a really, really critical point in time for our country and for the world," he says. "We need to quit talking and start walking. I think the success of MNN shows that America is interested in this. The bad news is, we've got a lot of challenges. The good news is that people do care, and they are looking for solutions. In my humble opinion, we need to work on those solutions, and work on them now."
And if the green work isn't enough to occupy Leavell, he shouldn't have any trouble finding employment in the coming years--the Rolling Stones are already discussing the possibility of reuniting for a 50th reunion tour in 2012.
For more on the business of music, check out my Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office. For more on Chuck, Keith, Mick and the gang, read my story A Visit To The Rolling Stones' Morocco. For more, follow me on Twitter @zogblog.