With Reason and Faith

Rocker Chuck Leavell has become one of the South’s most passionate conservationists.

- Posted on Mar 5, 2014

Chuck Leavell poses in front of a long row of his trees.

"If you don’t want to plant a crop on that field down the road, y’all might want to think about planting trees on it.” My brother-in-law, Alton, tossed that out casually and grabbed another of the buttermilk biscuits his sister–my wife, Rose Lane–had made.

Little did I know that his remark would change my life.

The three of us were sitting at their late grandmother’s old pine table having breakfast. Miss Julia had left the family homeplace, a nineteenth-century farmhouse and roughly 1,100 acres in middle Georgia, to Rose Lane.

We lived a few miles away, in Macon, but we’d been staying at the farm to look after things while we grieved for Miss Julia and took stock of our situation.

And really, to try to figure out what we were supposed to do with all this land. Mostly cattle and row crops had been raised on it since Rose Lane’s grandparents bought it. But I wasn’t a farmer. I was a rock musician.

For four years I was the keyboardist for the Allman Brothers Band, who maybe more than any other group shaped the southern rock sound (that’s me you hear on the piano on “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica”).

When the Brothers temporarily disbanded in 1976, a couple of the guys and I started our own group, Sea Level. We toured extensively and made five albums, but in 1981 we broke up too.

Now I was between jobs, wondering what my next gig would be. A musician’s life is an uncertain one, but the Good Lord had always provided for me. I fell in love with music at the age of six. I’d listen to my mom pick out a melody on our piano, then play it back for her by ear.

She taught me that more important than the notes being played are the feelings being expressed. “What would it sound like if you were upset?” she’d ask. And I’d rumble something on the low keys. It gave me the shivers in the best way, like hearing everyone sing at church.

I discovered another love around that same time. My family lived in the country outside Montgomery, Alabama, and I felt a close connection to the land. There were woods to explore, horses to ride, a creek to wade in.

I started my first band, the Misfitz, at 13 after my family moved to Tuscaloosa. We practiced in my parents’ living room and played the YMCA every Friday night. At 17, I took off for Macon, Georgia, the birthplace of southern rock.

Capricorn Records was then an up-and-coming label, so that’s where I went. Behind the desk was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, with an equally beautiful name, Rose Lane White. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and her sparkling hazel eyes.

But would you believe it took me two years to muster up the courage to ask her out? Lucky for me, she accepted. After dating a few months and getting serious, I asked her to tell me about her family.

“We’re country folk,” she said. “My granddaddy was in the timber business. He and my grandmother also farmed, and my parents, my brother and I–we’ve all worked the land.”

Six months after our first date, Rose Lane and I were married. Two years later, our first child, Amy, was born. When we weren’t on tour with the Allman Brothers–we carried Amy from gig to gig–we were making memories with Rose Lane’s family on their land.

Spending our free time there was one thing. But now Miss Julia’s 1,100 acres were our responsibility, and we wanted to do right by her and by the land. So here we were at breakfast, Alton, Rose Lane and I, shooting around ideas.

“Trees?” I asked Alton. “You mean peach trees, or pecans?”

“Orchards need a lot of attention,” he said. “And you’re on the road so much. I mean trees that you grow for long-term forestry–for pulp production, saw timber and other products. Something you wouldn’t have to tend day to day like corn or cotton or cows.”

He looked at Rose Lane. “It would be kind of like reviving some family history.”

That got me thinking. And studying. I read everything I could get my hands on about trees, forestry and land management. I went to seminars. I sought advice from conservation experts.

I studied how to plant, grow, manage and harvest timber in ways that are beneficial for people, wildlife and the environment. The more I learned, the more I saw that one big reason we are here on God’s green earth is to be good stewards of the land.

One day, maybe a month or so into my research, I was playing my grand piano when I looked–really looked–at the instrument that had given me so much joy, as well as a great career. Its unique shape. The contrast of the black and white keys.

I thought about the thousands of hours I’d logged sitting at it, learning all I could. Then it hit me: This wondrous instrument came from that precious, natural and renewable resource–wood.

Of course I knew that. I’d just never given it much thought. The maple case, the spruce in the soundboard, the wooden keys and levers...now I could imagine all the work and care that went into growing those trees, harvesting the timber and crafting the wood.

My beloved piano wouldn’t be here without trees. I wouldn’t be living this wonderful life of mine without trees.

Tree farming? I had to try to make a go of it. Rose Lane and I agreed to make her grandmother’s house our permanent home. And like Alton suggested, we would grow trees on the land.

They would purify the air, filter our streams and rivers, and provide shelter for wildlife. Our trees would be used to make everything from paper to telephone poles.

Rose Lane’s hazel eyes were shining. “I think Miss Julia and Granddaddy would be very proud.” That very day the Rolling Stones called. They were looking for a keyboardist. As I said, the Good Lord provides.

Before I knew it, I was back on tour... with the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band. On breaks, I came home to Rose Lane and our girls (by then we had a second daughter, Ashley) and our tree farm. We named our place Charlane Plantation, a combination of Charles and Rose Lane.

I loved learning about trees, and that love deepened as I nurtured them and watched them grow. In the 32 years since we started Charlane Plantation, we’ve planted more than a half million trees.

I cofounded Mother Nature Network, the most visited independent environmental website in the world. And I’m still touring with the Stones and releasing my own albums.

My friends say I am a tree farmer in my heart and a musician in my soul. They’re right. As passionate as I am about music, sometimes I need a respite from the craziness of rock and roll.

I’ll go for a long walk among my trees. I breathe the air they’ve freshened, listen to the play of the breeze in their leaves and give thanks. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”


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