Sept/Oct 2019Rocking the Georgia PinesText by Tom Poland, Photos by Robert Clark
When Chuck Leavell is not on the road with the Rolling Stones, he spends his time singing the praises of forests, bobwhite quail and conservation.
Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell live in the geographic center of Georgia near Dry Branch. They live there on a beautiful plantation nestled among pines and hardwoods - when they're not touring the world with the Rolling Stones.
Rocking the world and managing timber and wildlife demands balance, something nature needs too. All of it comes together at Charlane Plantation, which began with an inheritance of some 1,100 acres Rose Lane's grandmother left to her in the 1980s, and now has grown to 4,000 acres. Considered the Rolling Stones' band mother, she helps with wardrobe, makeup, and negotiating the enormous stages they play on these days. Rose Lane worked at legendary Capricorn Records, a studio synonymous with Southern rock. The Allman Brothers Band (ABB), Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop and the Marshall Tucker Band recorded there. She met Chuck there, where the Allman Brothers Band asked him to join them in 1972.
Charles "Chuck" Leavell came to fame playing the rollicking piano feature in "Jessica," an ABB classic. His piano and keyboard work would go on to grace and sparkle the works of Eric Clapton, John Mayer, The Black Crowes, George Harrison, The Indigo Girls, Blues Traveler, Train, Lee Ann Womack and others.
For thirty-eight years now Chuck has played keyboards and served as musical director for the Rolling Stones. He's played with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame, (his "Comfortably Numb" vocals are stellar), and when he's back home he plays with his beloved German shorthaired pointer, Babe. "My passion for hunting," said Chuck, "is upland game - pheasant, grouse, quail."
While Rose Lane doesn't shoot so much anymore, she is a cracker-jack shot with a .410 and is a tough, independent Southern woman. "Daddy taught me to hammer a nail in a tree and to shoot straight," she said.
That Déjà vu Feeling
The farmhouse they live in, dubbed The Home Place, circa 1870, and expanded over time, consists mostly of pine harvested from their forest. Rose Lane and Chuck, stewards of those 4,000 acres, manage their plantation as a hunting preserve and sustainable forestland. You'll find beggarweed along with native grasses, weeds and legumes that provide excellent habitat for quail, doves, turkeys, deer and other wildlife here, and you'll find a piano-playing, tree farmer conservationist. Said Mick Jagger, "Chuck loves trees."
Hunters booking stays to hunt quail here get a treat. Chuck entertains them at his lodge's grand piano with a coiled rattler on it. Consider Chuck Leavell the world's most recognizable tree farmer.
Chuck drove us into the woods where we got out and let the dogs roam. As the three of us walked uphill through tall pines, cloud cover dispersed winter light. No shadows. "This looks familiar," I thought.
The haunting feeling I'd been there before swept over me. Then I recalled an afternoon at Little Hobcaw in Nesmith, South Carolina, where financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch established a quail hunting property in the early 1900s. Legendary writer Robert Ruark hunted Baruch's quail haven. Throughout the years land managers planted wildlife plots in loblolly and longleaf pine upland areas. Pine windrows in larger fields increased the "edge effect." They thinned trees. Decades of controlled burns gave the land a park-like appearance. Charlane looked much the same.
Chuck's dog whistle brought me back to Georgia. The dogs worked up several birds. I asked if he had a good quail population.
"We have a good wild population. We're going to release birds, being a commercial entity, but I have areas where I just don't disturb the wild birds and I love whistling them up and hearing them answer. Occasionally I'll take a dog down there and see if I can locate some."
As we walked, Chuck resumed. "It's all about the habitat for quail. We've been grooming this place for thirty-five years now. It takes a long time to get the habitat correct with the right diversity and density of wild grasses, legumes and weeds."
Plantation Manager Hal Hamilton met us at the hunt site, and he said they prescribe burn about every thirty-six months and thin the pines so natural grasses can move in. "We plant four-grain food plots, too," said Hal. "We have five wild coveys here in this one area."
"You have to keep an eye on predation," said Chuck. "Everything is out to get that little bird."
As the dogs worked, I asked Chuck if he was a good wing shot.
"Fair, not great. The dove season was coming to an end and Hal said, ‘Chuck, you need to get your new dog out there and see if we can get it to retrieve some dove.' Well I probably shot a box of shells and knocked down maybe five birds. I'm better on the quail, pheasant and ducks for some reason."
Walking through tall pines, we watched the dogs work up quail, and all those beggarweed seeds, Desmodium, a member of the bean family - food for the birds - found us.
From Game Birds to Thunderbirds to South Carolina
Chuck studied forestry by correspondence and did homework while riding a tour bus with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the mid 1980s. In time, he and Rose Lane would turn the plantation into a textbook tree farm. Their success would take them on the road. Autumn 2018. Chuck and Rose Lane visit Moncks Corner to film the third episode of "America's Forests With Chuck Leavell." The episode focused on a program for African American landowners who own or have inherited forested land. Trees and piano keys make a great combo. While in Moncks Corner, Chuck accompanied the choir on piano at a local church.
In addition to television, Chuck shares his forestry knowledge in books. He wrote Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest because he realized the general public misunderstood forestry. "I wanted to write about that [misunderstanding] and cover the era when there was rape and pillage of the forest, but also the period of recovery. Important characters like Gifford Pinchot, Carl Scheck and Bernhard Fernow, another German, led the way, along with conservationists like John Muir and, of course, Teddy Roosevelt. I wanted folks to know about the Cradle of Forestry in America in Asheville with Pinchot working for the Vanderbilts."
He didn't overlook children. "It's so important to engage young people about forestry because that is the future. So, I did a children's book, The Tree Farmer, about a grandson who visits his grandfather's tree farm for the first time. The grandfather shows him what he does as a steward of the forest."
I asked Chuck if writing books was difficult. "Challenging, but all of them were on subjects I have a passion for. I find songwriting more difficult. I have never been a great lyricist; never seemed to have that gift. So, most of the material I write musically is instrumental. I enjoy painting pictures and colors with the fingers and with themes, but the books were not that difficult. I did have help with them by the way, co-authors... especially with proper grammar and technical aspects of writing."
Chuck said his more recent book, Growing a Better America, "arose from the concern that we have, what, 327 million people in our country now, and that's a lot of pressure on our natural resources. How do we deal with that, and how do we go forward and continue to see the growth in the population and not do too much damage to the land? That's the theme of that book."
The Mother Nature Network
Besides books, Chuck hit the internet, co-founding the Mother Nature Network www.mnn.com - the world's most visited online network for news and information about the environment and responsible living. Chuck explained how MNN came about.
"The impetus was my partner, Joel Babbit. We had become friends. Joel is a public relations and advertising genius and had run a couple of companies, sold them to bigger companies, and at that time, 2008, he was president of Grey Communications of Atlanta.
"He called me in one day and said, ‘Listen, I represent a lot of big companies, Coca-Cola, AT&T and big accounts, and they have all made significant changes in their behavior towards the environment. They realize we're at a critical time, and they're trying to recycle and do things to improve their footprint. I have no problem in getting their messages out on print ads, radio or television, but I've been scouring the internet and I can't find a place I'm comfortable spending their budgets. What can you tell me?'"
Chuck Leavell's Legacy
Chuck has served on the boards of influential organizations including the American Forest Foundation and the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities. In 1999, Chuck and Rose Lane earned National Tree Farmers of the Year for their management of Charlane Plantation. In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service appointed him an Honorary Forester, just the second person to receive that honor. His book, The Tree Farmer, received the American Farm Bureau's Book of the Year award. In 2009, Chuck co-founded Mother Nature Network.
Chuck said, "You know, Joel, you're right, there's no WebMD for the environment." The two decided to change that. Joel told Chuck he would resign his position, get funding and put a staff together. "I'm in," said Chuck. "Joel hired some very talented ecojournalists. We put the offices together and launched on a wing and a prayer, not knowing whether it was going to be successful or not."
MNN started slowly but climbed into the top twenty sites of its kind, and today it's the most visited independent environmental website, generating some 5 to 6 million sessions per month from more than 200 countries. As Chuck said, "It only took 4.5 billion years to build that website."
So, we have a little help here from the Mother Nature Network, and the Stones have their classic "Mother's Little Helper." I asked Chuck what's his favorite Stones song to play with the band? "Oh, I enjoy doing ‘Honky Tonk Women.'" Chuck first heard the song while living in Nashville. "Man, I was riding down a road and a new Stones song came on the radio and blew me away. I pulled over to listen to it and went straight to the record store." Chuck and a guitar-playing friend "played it about a hundred times that day over and over and over." Today, he plays the song along with the band. Life's come full circle.
Chuck and I closed our interview discussing writing, music, life and love. He said something we all know is true. "Whatever your calling, if you are passionate about it, it's not work, it's fun." Chuck's passionate about music and the environment, and it shows. Managing Charlane for hunting and timber has been a labor of love for him and Rose Lane. The Leavells love the land, life and each other. "We have been together forty-six years, and we have a lot of fun together," said Chuck. "She travels with me. She works backstage with The Stones now. We are together just about every day."
Preserve America, an independent educational project for greater public awareness of preservation initiatives, named Chuck and Rose Lane to their 2013-2014 class of Gatekeepers of History. Something Chuck said in that write-up sticks with me, but unlike those little beggarweed seeds, I'll hang onto it. "I believe there is a deep spiritual nourishment in living somewhere where every tree is taller than every building, rather than the other way around."
Amen to that, and amen to the great example Charlane Plantation sets for all who love the land, hunting and a healthy world.