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Talkin' Blues

Talkin' Blues with Chuck Leavell

By Published: May 1, 2012
AAJ: Speaking of ecology, here's my pitch to get you to come to Germany again. The Achental valley where I live, in Germany, is striving to become energy independent by 2020. This month a new pilot project just came online. It is a biomass power plant that uses wood scraps and wood by-products, and it provides electricity and heating for 500 households.

CL: That is absolutely wonderful, and by the way, we have recently hosted a group of German [governmental] ministers here at our place, Charlane [Plantation]. As you well know, Germans are very sensitive about environmental matters, so they specifically wanted to come to Georgia because of their interest in biomass facilities.

In Georgia, what's happening is that we have—I believe it's three— pellet plants that take the wood biomass and make these pellets that are used in producing heat and energy. The reason these ministers came was to see the Georgia forests for themselves and make sure that if these resources were being tapped, that it was a sustainable resource.

I found that very admirable, and we had a wonderful meeting. They not only toured my place, but they toured other parts of Georgia. We've stayed in touch, and I think they went away very confident that this is a perfect part of the world to get the resource they are looking for with respect to biomass. So we are looking forward to other pellet plants located here, and working with Germany and other parts of Europe.

AAJ: In regard to Germany, something else made me think of you and your German buddy Christian Raupach. In the liner notes for your new CD, Back to the Woods: a Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano, you and Larry Cohn wrote about the early traveling piano players. You know, in Europe there are still lots of these cozy jazz clubs that make you feel like you've stepped out of a time machine into the past. Recently, I was in a tiny club that even had an upright as the house piano.

It got me to wondering if Christian could pitch something to German TV for you and your wife, Rose Lane, to travel around Germany by train, with a small film crew, playing these little clubs like the traveling musicians you wrote about, maybe even combining music with a look at environmental projects in Europe.

CL: That could be a strong possibility, Alan. As you know, I was supposed to be on tour with John Mayer this year, and I'm sure you've read the news that this granuloma on his vocal chords has returned. So that's caused us to cancel the whole tour. I was supposed to be on tour with him through October and beyond.

So the plug on that was only pulled about three weeks ago, so I'm kind of in reset mode right now. I have talked to Christian, and unfortunately we are a little late now to get dates that would make sense for me to do in Germany, at least through the fall. So I'm focusing on what I can do here. But, who knows, maybe we could get to do that. I think it's a fun idea, and it would be a great experience.

AAJ: The last time we talked, you were already interested in doing a tribute album about the early blues pioneer piano players. It's an amazing piece of work. What struck me, as I got into it, is that guitar-based blues is very much alive and well in our guitar-centric age, but it's clear how close we've come to losing something really special. Although it is actually quite old, piano blues is new to a lot of us, so I'm hoping this CD will spark a renewed interest in it.

Chuck Leavell Back to the WoodsCL: I appreciate that very much. For me, it was such an interesting project. My son-in-law Steve Bransford, is a Ph.D. who graduated from Emory University, and his discipline is American History with an emphasis on visual arts and American roots music. So it was his idea. He came to me and mentioned there's been all these projects done for artists like Muddy Waters and other guitarists and blues composers, and tributes done for a lot of jazz artists. He said that, to his knowledge, no one had really focused on these prewar piano players, and he said there is some really interesting material there, so he gave me three CDs with about 150 songs to listen to.

That was the impetus for this thing. I was already aware of a lot of the music, especially the Leroy Carr and some other things, but he dug down really deep: stuff like Barrelhouse Buck McFarland, Leola Manning—you know, names that I had never heard of. It was just one heck of a journey for me to study this stuff.

I started by just listening to those discs when I was in my truck, or whenever I had the chance. I probably just listened for three months; then I began to pick out songs that I thought would be good for me to interpret. So we culled it down to about 50 or so, and from there we focused on the final 15 we chose. Along the way, we came up with these ideas on special guest artists, and of course that really helped spice things up.

So the right way to put it is that it was a wonderful journey for me to go back and restudy some of the artists, and study some that I didn't know about, and to bring it all to life.


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