Music

Rolling Stones sideman and go-to keyboardist Chuck Leavell talks trees and piano blues

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tunes-image1Chuck Leavell was at his chainsaw guy’s place earlier this week when he called me.

People who make a living with the subtle musculature of their fingers and the fine-boned dexterity of their hands have a reason to be cautious, and to maybe even avoid power tools. Get those digits slammed in a door or smacked into a table corner and paychecks stop coming.

Chuck Leavell isn’t so precious about his fingers — hence the chainsaw — but maybe he should be.

Leavell is a piano player who has been touring and recording with the Rolling Stones for over 30 years. Leavell was also a member of the Allman Brothers Band, and he’s played with dozens of others — Train, John Mayer, the Black Crowes, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and a bunch more. Leavell just got through touring with the Stones, and he went out as a member of David Gilmour’s band in the summer as well. Leavell is also on the forthcoming Stones album, Blue and Lonesome, set to be released on Dec. 2, an album that finds the Stones returning to their early inspiration as a blues band, paying homage to masters of Chicago blues. Leavell was messing around with chainsaws this week because, when he’s not out playing with musical giants, he’s heavily involved in forestry, in conservation and management of America’s woodlands. Leavell and his wife, Rose, own and operate a 3,000-acre tree farm and retreat on an old plantation outside of Macon, Georgia.

“I’m playing tree farmer today,” says Leavell, who will be coming to Winston-Salem in a visit that brings together both of his passions — blues and forestry — when he participates in a panel discussion on sustainable forestry and environmental stewardship on Thursday, Nov. 10, and then performs a solo piano show at The Barn at Reynolda Village as a part of the new “More Barn” concert series on Friday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m.

You might say the blues are a precious American cultural resource, something to be preserved and celebrated like this country’s vast and delicate forests, something that’s at the heart of a lot we surround ourselves with, something that gets taken for granted even. In that regard, Leavell’s involvement on the forthcoming blues-centric Stones album and his work in forestry and conservation all fit in with his sense of place, history and the land. Leavell has written several books including an autobiography, books on sustainable forestry and a children’s book about tree farming.

Leavell’s most recent record, 2014’s Back to the Woods, is — much like the Stones record — a tribute to the roots of the blues. In this case Leavell made an album honoring the masters of blues piano, a genre and style that often gets overshadowed.

“When people think of the blues, the first thing they think of is usually the guitar,” says Leavell. “Rarely do they think of the piano, and I wanted to correct that because the piano has played a significant role in the development of the blues.”

Some of the giants of the blues — players who are known primarily for their guitar work — were also piano players. Skip James and Leadbelly both made recordings playing piano, and the degree to which their piano playing informed their guitar work, or vice versa, is interesting to contemplate, with rapid runs and sudden stops opening up spaces in their songs.
When people talk about the fundamental influence that the blues has had on genres like jazz, they’re often referring to the harmonic and melodic logic of the blues, but there are whole styles of blues piano with connections to ragtime, barrelhouse, boogie-woogie and stride, that have a direct connection to jazz.

Leavell’s record serves to reorient the ears of blues fans to the keyboard.

“The whole purpose was to bring to light the piano,” says Leavell.

To prepare for the record, Leavell says his son-in-law, Steve Bransford, whose field is American history, assembled CDs with over a hundred pre-War piano blues recordings on them, and Leavell spent time soaking them up.

“I went through a process of riding around, mainly in my pickup truck, listening to this material,” says Leavell.

The experience left the pianist with a few other ideas for future projects. There’s enough material to do a second volume of piano blues, especially since Leavell didn’t even address the monumental legacy of New Orleans piano blues, with figures like Jelly Roll Morton and Professor Longhair looming large among pianists. Another idea that the project suggested was something on the tradition of gospel piano as it relates to rock and roll.

“When you think of rock-and-roll piano, so much of it comes from the church,” says Leavell, referring to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Billy Preston and Ray Charles.

Despite his easy-rolling attitude, Leavell seems to have a steady-burning work ethic underneath his rock-steady exterior. In addition to his forestry, music and writing projects, Leavell also helped launch Mother Nature Network, mnn.com, a site for environmental news and information. And he’s also done some music instruction, passing on what he knows, in the form of IRockU, a site devoted to Leavell’s rock piano lessons.

Leavell, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, started learning his chords, voicings, scales and finger exercises while sitting on the bench beside his mother, who played piano at home, but he also picked up a lot from listening to the radio — to gospel, blues, early rock and country.

“I am who I am because of the way I’ve grown up,” says Leavell. “I grew up listening to Southern music, whether it be country or rhythm and blues or soul, all of those things, but I also listened to the British Invasion — the Stones, Beatles, Zombies, Dave Clark Five” says Leavell.

That combination might make Leavell perfectly suited to understand what an English rock band steeped in the blues is looking for when they want a keyboardist to flesh out their sound.

“My fingers have a Southern accent,” says Leavell.

Wanna go? See Chuck Leavell at The Barn at Reynolda Village, Winston-Salem, Friday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Visit sustainability.wfu.edu or call 336-758-BARN for more information.

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