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Sticks, Stones and a better America
Musician and author Chuck Leavell sits in at the Savannah Book Festival
"Growing a Better America" is the fourth book by legendary musician Chuck Leavell. Next year marks his 30th anniversary with the Rolling Stones.

A little to the south of Macon, near the town of Bullard, Georgia, there’s a 2,500 acre tree farm called Charlane Plantation. Here, Chuck Leavell and his wife Rose Lane grow pines for harvest – in 1999, they were named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year by the American Forest Foundation and the American Tree Farm System – and maintain healthy wild populations of deer, turkeys, quail and ducks.

The pair are active in sustainable forestry management and conservation discussions around the world; in 2006 Governor Sonny Perdue appointed Chuck to the Georgia Land Conservation Council.

Chuck Leavell will be at the Savannah Book Festival Saturday, Feb. 19, to discuss Growing a Better America, his fourth book. He’ll also sign copies of the other three, one of which is an autobiography: Between Rock and a Home Place.

Leavell also happens to be the Rolling Stones’ keyboard player, a position he’s held since 1981.

The Stones gig came after a good 10 years of dues–paying for the Alabama native. He literally replaced Duane Allman in the Allman Brothers Band (that’s Leavell’s distinctive piano work all over the classic 1973 Brothers and Sisters album) and fronted, for five years, the innovative jazz–rock–funk band Sea Level (C. Leavell, dig it?)

He might not always be at Charlane, physically, but the plantation, the earth, the sky and the trees, are never far from his thoughts. Leavell also runs a website, The Mother Nature Network (, dedicated to environmental news and issues.

What’s your book, Growing a Better America, about?

Chuck Leavell: It’s all about smart growth. The fact is, we have 310 million people in this country now, we’re going to have 400 before you know it. And it’s putting a lot of pressure on things like our natural lands and resources. So at this juncture, wouldn’t it be a good idea to think long and hard about how we are going to grow? Is that growth going to be rampant, rapid and reckless, or can it be smart, strong and sustainable?

My money’s on rampant and reckless.

Chuck Leavell: (laughs) There’s going to be some of that, no doubt, but I think it’s important that you give people the information. That they understand the options that we have going forward. For instance, we have chapters on growth models, communities that have done a really great job in growing and paid attention to transportation issues, and energy issues, and community design, so on and so forth.

It’s an important time in our country, man, and we need to really try to be careful about this. We’ve got a lot of highways, lots of cars on those highways, and almost 80,000 planes in the air every day. These things are going to happen – I’m not anti–growth, but I really do think it’s important that we pay attention to how we’re going to grow.

Have you always had an interest in this sort of thing?

Chuck Leavell: The impetus came from these speeches I’ve given in the past, where I’ve talked about the invisible forest health crisis. There are some shocking statistics on the amount of lands that we’re losing to growth and development. Atlanta loses somewhere between 80 and 100 acres a day, about half of that to impervious surfaces. The southeast as a whole, from Virginia down to East Texas loses almost a million acres a year to growth and development. These are staggering numbers to absorb.

The more I said those words, the more I thought “There’s a book here. There’s information that people might find valuable.” I want to credit my co–writer, J. Marshall Craig – he and I both did a tremendous amount of research. This was not an easy project. This was a daunting project, and we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, frankly.

 And it is a moving target, because a lot of this information changes weekly, monthly, yearly. But we did the best we could to paint a picture of what it’s like right now, and what it might be like if we don’t think about it. And what it can be like if we do.

Tell me about Charlane Plantation.

Chuck Leavell: We’ve been doing commercial quail hunting for about 20 years now – a traditional Southern quail hunt. Of course, this goes along with our theme of habitat management, and the ecosystem out here that we work so hard to keep in good shape. It’s also a great way, in my mind, to expose people not just to the outdoors, but to the outdoor issues beyond just the hunting. That’s a lot of fun about what we do.

We’ve gone beyond this on the off–season to occasionally offering what we call retreats. Rose Lane’s had people here interested in taking a sabbatical for a few days and painting, or studying under a friend of ours who’s a really good instructor.

Some of the people who come just want to kick back. We always give a forestry tour to the guests that come, and talk about these issues. We’re thinking about birding and other nature aspects ... and perhaps even music. Really small music retreats.

You have a new music project in the works?

Chuck Leavell: Yes, it’s tentatively titled Back to the Woods. It’s a tribute to pioneering blues piano players, mostly from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s era. These are mostly unknown names – Jesse James, Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery. I did throw in a very early Ray Charles track that’s not very well known. I’ve done an Otis Spann track.

I used some musicians in Athens, that’s where I’ve been recording. Drums and standup bass. And I’ve had some special guests like Bruce Hampton, and Danny Barnes, who had a band called the Bad Livers. Randall Bramblett has done some horn work for it.

I’ve also had a commitment from Keith Richards to make a cameo. I’m trying to work that out.

What did you think of Keith’s book?

Chuck Leavell: Loved it. A wonderful read, just very well–written. You know, Keith is very well–read. I don’t think I’ve ever been in his hotel suite, or in his home, when I didn’t see a book in his hand. He was prepared for this; certainly his voice is there.

Are you in it?

Chuck Leavell: Well, I am. Obviously I’m not a main focus, but I am mentioned, and in a very good way. He talks about how I am carrying on the Ian Stewart tradition. That’s a great compliment to me.

Is there a tour coming?

Chuck Leavell: Nothing to report right now, I’m afraid. I do know that there’s been talking to a number of promoters and entities. But as we all know, next year is the big 50th year for the Stones, and I have to believe something would be on tap anyway. While it means 50 years for the guys, it means 30 for me! So it’s a double anniversary.

Savannah Book Festival

Festival Day is Saturday, Feb. 19 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. in Telfair Square

Chuck Leavell speaks at 4:30 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church

Admission: Free

At the Jepson Center: An exhibition of art by Rose Lane Leavell

Info and full speaking schedule: