||Des Moines Register
Behind the music
By KYLE MUNSON
Register Music Critic
September 27, 2001
Leavell and Wood
Chuck Leavell has shared stadium stages with the Rolling Stones and helped to record a fair share of rock's major albums throughout the last 30 years.
"Whatever you think it is, you can double that and maybe you'll come close," was Leavell's description of the life that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the Stones have lived on the road. He joined their worldwide whirlwind in 1982.
"I'll dispel no myths," the keyboardist and singer added from his Las Vegas hotel room, when prodded to separate some Stones fact from fiction. "Gotta keep those myths alive."
He's a veteran rocker, but Leavell, 49, has gathered no moss. This year alone he has been heard on young rock band Train's big radio hit, "Drops of Jupiter"; on another young rock band's debut album (Brand New Immortals' "Tragic Show"); on the Proclaimers' latest album; and with Gov't Mule as a semi-permanent, touring member.
The Mule, the New York-based power trio that lost bassist Allen Woody last year, is alive and kickin' with singer-guitarist Warren Haynes, drummer Matt Abts and alternating replacement bassists Oteil Burbridge (from the Allman Brothers Band) or Dave Schools (from Widespread Panic). The band stops Tuesday in Des Moines.
The first half of Gov't Mule's "The Deep End," a two-volume set featuring a stellar lineup of guest bassists (John Entwistle, Bootsy Collins, Me'shell N'degeocello, etc.), arrives in record stores on Oct. 9. Vol. 2 follows in the spring.
Despite a supporting-role resume that most musicians would kill for, Leavell is more proud of his 1999 award for National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year than any platinum record he's played on.
That's right. He and his wife, Rose Lane, own and operate the 2,200-acre Charlane Plantation in Twiggs County, Ga. Leavell has often been confronted with the question, "What is this rock 'n' roll guy doing foolin' with forestry?"
When not on a tour bus he's sharing his plantation with white-tailed deer, quail, wild turkeys, black bears, alligators, ducks and thousands of trees. Leavell also became an author this year, publishing "Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest." Even his new solo album, "Forever Blue: Solo Piano," has trees pictured on its cover.
Becoming an Allman
Leavell refers to all his "great distractions" when reminiscing about his past as a chronic sideman for rock's greats.
He started his first band at 13 in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
"Sunday morning gospel radio was a huge influence on me," he said. An underage Leavell slipped into the Blue Moon Cafe in nearby Northport to hear Mississippi Fred McDowell. A Ray Charles concert also inspired him.
"It's in my blood, in my veins," Leavell said. "Some of my success and career has been due to the fact that I'm a Southern musician."
After Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident in 1971, the rest of the Allmans tried operating as a five-piece but soon called Leavell, who by then was gaining notice in Muscle Shoals' fertile music scene. Leavell began playing studio sessions for Gregg Allman's solo album.
"During the nights, the rest of the Allman Brothers would show up," he said. "This went back and forth — a session for Gregg one night, an Allmans jam another night. We didn't have a major plan. This process went on for about two or three weeks."
That process yielded both the Allman Brothers' "Brothers and Sisters" and Gregg's "Laid Back."
Barely 20 in 1972, Leavell was called into the Allmans' record company president's office, where the entire band had assembled to offer him a full-time job.
The Alabama boy got his first big break and was on the road to rock history.
From the '70s to Stones to today
When the Allmans temporarily disbanded in 1976, Leavell founded Sea Level (ha ha) with fellow alumni Jai Johanny Johanson and Lamar Williams. (It foreshadowed how latter-day Allmans Haynes and Woody would successfully spin off Gov't Mule two decades later.)
Leavell married Rose Lane in 1973. In 1981 the couple inherited the 1,000 acres from Rose's grandmother that would become their plantation. Tree farming was the natural choice for a touring rocker, Leavell said.
"It's a long-term thing, something I could be involved in on a periodic basis and still follow my musical career and not feel guilty about about leaving cows unattended," he said.
While on the road with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1985, Leavell completed a correspondence course in forestry management. He also spent 15 years paying inheritance taxes on the land.
Leavell's Stones gig helped pay the bills.
"Musical navigator is the only way I can really think to say it," he said of his Stones role. The late Ian Stewart, who had the role before him, campaigned for Leavell to get the job. "I keep track of all these hundreds of songs. You'll be in a rehearsal, and Mick or Keith will say, 'What's the bridge? I can't remember the bridge.' I keep charts and info so that it makes it easy for them to be reminded of what the (key) changes might be."
He played on Stones' members solo albums. He has pushed for the band to play more obscure songs ("She's a Rainbow," for instance) that they might not normally choose. With Eric Clapton, Leavell has had a "more up-front role," more soloing and singing.
Leavell said his connection to the big '60s English rockers isn't strange at all. It comes from the fact that they cut their teeth on America's old Delta blues, R & B and country.
"I find it interesting that they like Southern musicians, and I'm glad they do," he laughed.
In Gov't Mule Leavell gets to tour smaller theaters instead of stadiums, and work more as an equal instead of a backup player.
"Who knows where we're going with this, but the bottom line is everybody's enjoying themselves immensely," Leavell said of his Mule ride.
"There may be a stability factor that is not there at times," he admitted about his life as a hired gun. "But it's just so interesting with all these different artists and all these different settings. It's become kind of the hallmark of my career. That's what I do."
The Allman Brothers Band
(joined in 1972)
Hank Williams Jr.
The Marshall Tucker Band
The Rolling Stones
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
The Black Crowes
(current tour)Long journey
leads to Mule ride
Gov't Mule (Warren Haynes, Matt Abts, Chuck Leavell and Oteil Burbridge).
8 p.m. Tuesday.
Hoyt Sherman Theater, 15th Street and Woodland Avenue.
$20 in advance, $25 at the door.
274-5566 (CoffeeHouse Productions) or 244-0507 (Hoyt).