Explore Atlanta

Sticks and Stones

Chuck Leavell may live near Macon, but his Atlanta roots run as deeply as those on his beloved tree farm, Charlane Plantation. We talk with the accomplished piano and keyboard player about music, tree farming, environmental issues and more.

Your first career is as a musician ... how did you become interested in conservation?
It is all my wife, Rose Lane’s, fault. In 1981, her grandmother passed away leaving her about a thousand acres of land, and at that point it became our personal responsibility to carry on a heritage of stewardship of the land.

You’re the co-founder of the Atlanta-based web site Mother Nature Network (www.mnn.com). Where did the idea come from?
From my friend and partner, Joel Babbit. Joel has had a stellar career in advertising and public relations; he told me that many of his big clients like Coca-Cola, Dell and others were coming to him asking to get their environmental messages out over the Internet. He had done some research, but was not comfortable with the sites he saw and wanted my opinion. There were sites out there, but nothing really remarkable. He turned to me and said, “So why don’t we build one?” I saw the opportunity, and while it was a bit scary, I said, “Let’s go for it,” and we did.

The site’s popularity has grown tremendously. To what do you attribute that?
The site’s gangbuster’s growth can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of people in the U.S. and all over the world truly care about these issues and are looking for solutions as to how they can personally reduce their energy consumption, how they can live more responsibly, live better. Big corporations want to do the same.

Your latest solo CD is called “Back to the Woods.” What’s the focus?
The project is a tribute to the pioneers of blues piano. The title is the name of one of the songs by a guy named Charlie Spand. The idea was presented to me by my son-in-law, Steve Bransford. Steve is a Ph.D. grad from Emory with a discipline in American history and a focus on visual arts and roots music. He said, “There have been any number of tributes done to honor blues guitar players, blues singers and jazz artists, but no one has ever paid tribute to the blues piano players.” I loved the idea and we eventually came up with 15 songs to record.

You had some help on the CD from former Atlantan John Mayer. How do your styles combine and complement each other?
Yes, John is a special guest on the record. I had met him when he opened some gigs on the last Stones tour, but it wasn’t until he called me to work on his recently released CD, “Born and Raised,” that we became friends. I can’t say enough in praise of this guy. He is an amazing talent in so many ways. As for his appearance on “Back to the Woods,” he was gracious to do it and just smoked the tracks he is featured on.

2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones. How does the band keep the shows fresh, both for yourselves and the fans?
There is no magic answer. The reality, I believe, is that rock ’n’ roll helps to keep you young. Also, the passion is still there. It’s cliché, but age IS just a number, and you can achieve and build on your dreams at any stage in your life. I have no doubt that we can still deliver the goods. Maybe even better than ever.

Do you still sometimes look across the stage and see Mick, Keith and Charlie Watts doing their thing and wonder how you got there?
How about every day I spend with them?! When I was a kid in my first band, “The Misfits,” we played a ton of British Invasion, a lot of Stones. Way back then, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would wind up playing alongside my musical heroes. But here I am, 30 years later. I still pinch myself. Just don’t tell Mick that.

You spend quite a bit of time in Atlanta with your daughter, Amy; her husband, Steve, and two grandsons. Where are some of your favorite places to go with them?
They live in Inman Park, and I love that area. We go to Rathbun’s, Highland Bakery, Barbette’s Cafe and other places there. We also like Blue Ridge Grill, Highland Café, The Palm, Sotto Sotto, Fellini’s, Surin, Woodfire Grill—Atlanta has so many great restaurants! And by the way, don’t forget about the amazing Serenbe, just 30 miles from the city center. But there are also so many other fun places such as the Aquarium, the Botanical Gardens, Piedmont Park and venues like The Fox, Blind Willie’s and others. There’s too many to list here!