Paint It Green
08/22/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
TREE FARMER CHUCK LEAVELL IS warbling a country tune in a small cabin on his 1,500-acre spread in Dry Branch, middle-of-nowhere Georgia. But even though it's delivered with the requisite down-home twang, there's something decidedly un-country in the lyrics about a lovesick junkie overdosing in a "basement room, with a needle and spoon." Certainly not the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from the spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Association. Yet Leavell, a prominent environmentalist who was voted the American Forest Foundation's Georgia Tree Farmer of the Year in 1990, is rehearsing the song—"Dead Flowers"—for his work on behalf of a very different organization. In what may be the world's greatest part-time job, Leavell (pronounced La-VELL), 42, plays boogie piano for the Rolling Stones—whose world tour kicks off this month—when he's not down home on the farm, 22 miles southeast of Macon.
Leavell became the sixth Stone in 1982 after auditioning for the group, which then included the late Ian Stewart, the pianist who helped shape the Stones' famous sound. Band leaders Keith Richards and Mick Jagger credit the Stones' longevity, in part, to Leavell. "Chuck is our direct link to Stu," says Richards. "Without that continuity, the Stones would not be the Stones."
There are times, though, when sticks take precedence over Stones, as they did last June, when Leavell made an overnight trip from the Stones' Toronto rehearsals to address the Georgia Forestry Association's annual convention. Leavell, who drives a tractor, plants seedlings and monitors the pines on his own farm, is as reverential about trees as he is about rock and roll. After all, he says, "my instrument's made from them."
His passion for his instrument started early. The youngest of three children of a Tuscaloosa, Ala., insurance salesman and a piano-playing housewife, Leavell was still a toddler when he began picking out melodies on his mother's upright. "Momma encouraged me to paint pictures with the music," Leavell says. "She'd say, 'What would a thunderstorm sound like?' And I'd get down there and rumble, rumble, rumble."
By his teens, Leavell was playing in local rock bands, covering tunes by, among others, the Stones. In 1970, before finishing high school, Leavell drove to the Capricorn Records studio in Macon, where a mutual friend introduced him to Gregg Allman, who two years later invited him to join the Allman Brothers Band. That same year he met Rose Lane White, a Capricorn employee from Macon who had learned forestry on her grandparents' 1,200-acre pine farm. The couple married in 1973, had their first daughter, Amy, in 1975, their second child, Ashley, in 1982—and inherited Rose's family farm in 1981. Dubbing the spread Char-lane—a union of his first and her middle names—the two gradually expanded their holdings to 1,500 acres. Much in demand after the Allmans broke up in 1976 and his own group, Sea Level, called it quits in 1980, Leavell recorded and toured with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Black Crowes, the Indigo Girls, Kitty Wells and even France's "Monsieur Elvis," Johnny Hallyday. He was on the road with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1989, when he completed his tree-farming correspondence course in the back of the tour bus. "Most people are lucky if they have one thing to be passionate about in their lives," Leavell says. "I have three: my family, my trees and my music."
Wistful as he embarks on the Stones tour, which will keep him away from Dry Branch for much of the next year, Leavell has devised a plan for staying in touch with his second love. An early riser in a band of late sleepers, he is hoping to take some morning nature walks and check out the indigenous trees. "I always carry a tree identification book for whatever region we're in," says Leavell, whose wife manages the farm with the help of a full-time worker when he's away. "I'll try to find a park or forest and do some hiking. Of course I can't do a whole lot of that. I've got to stay focused—on rock and roll."
CINDY DAMPIER in Dry Branch