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Talkin' Blues with Chuck Leavell

Alan Bryson By

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Receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; recording a new CD with guest stars John Mayer and Keith Richards trading guitar solos; successfully launching his Mother Nature Network, with ten million page views per month; publishing his fourth book, Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable (Evergreen Arts, 2011); being named an honorary forest ranger by the U.S. Forest Service, for his commitment to conservation; and working on John Mayer's much-anticipated Born And Raised (Columbia, to be released May 22, 2012)—that's just a bit of what Chuck Leavell has been up to since speaking with All About Jazz in late 2008.

A preeminent blues-rock pianist, Leavell worked with the Allman Brothers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Eric Clapton, The Black Crowes, George Harrison, The Indigo Girls, Blues Traveler, and many more. His pivotal role with The Rolling Stones, going back 30 years, might make one wonder if his grandkids assume his actual first name is "Legendary."

His album Back to the Woods: a Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano (Evergreen Arts, 2012) is arguably his most impressive. Our knowledge of prewar piano blues is based primarily on the flat, crackling sound once carved into the grooves of well-worn 78-rpm shellac records. Beyond demonstrating his understanding of early blues-piano technique, like a fine craftsman, Chuck Leavell manages to restore this music's rich textural beauty and transform a listener's perception of it into a vibrant musical experience.

This project isn't an academic exercise done out of a sense of reverence; Leavell brings the joy, energy and excitement of a bygone era back to life. The album not only preserves an endangered musical legacy, but also showcases the extraordinary talent of one of the finest blues pianists alive today, and allows modern blues fans to appreciate why the piano dominated the blues scene for decades—a role it thankfully never lost in jazz.

All About Jazz: When we spoke a few years back, you were just launching your Mother Nature Network. It's turned out to be an incredibly popular website. What's your web traffic like?

Chuck Leavell: As a matter of fact, I just got an update from my partner, Joel Babbit. We set new records, 12 million visits in one quarter, 8 million unique visitors in one quarter, and over 30 million page views in a quarter.

AAJ: That's amazing—quite an achievement. Any exciting plans for the Mother Nature Network?

CL: We introduced an new thing on weather. Most sites—Yahoo, Google and whatever—offer weather, but the icons are usually the same. It's a sun, or a cloud, or little drops of rain. So we changed that and started by hiring a model, and she depicts whether she's cold or hot, or carrying an umbrella. But now we've taken it to where we can actually let people personalize it by using a picture of their child or pet, or whatever it might be, even themselves. So they can play with it and have some fun. We see things like that as a unique way to attract people, and obviously Mother Nature has a lot to do with weather, so we think it's a fun fit.

But in terms of things going forward, we're continuing to grow, and we are now looking at the possibility of expanding into other sites. In addition to what we are doing environmentally, we are also expanding into the areas of social responsibility, corporate responsibility, health and safety—issues that may not be directly related to the environment. Nevertheless, they are things people care about. We are slowly expanding into these other arenas, and looking into the purchasing of other existing sites and doing something better with them. Nothing specific to announce at this point, but we are continuing on the path to growth.



AAJ: You are very focused on ecology and health matters. What are a few simple changes our readers could make in their own lives that would have a real impact on their own health and the health of the planet?

CL: I tell people the easiest thing they can do is to walk. So many people, especially Americans, depend on cars or public transportation, and we have an obesity problem in this country. So if you live a reasonable distance from your work, school, office, shops or whatever it might be, walking is the most natural form of exercise that most anybody can do. Obviously, it also saves on carbon emissions, so that's the first thing I tell people they can do. You know, it's good for your spirit, your body, and for the planet.

Secondly, I would say it's important for people to be aware of the choices they have, and that's one of the important things we're trying to do at MNN. At this juncture, we have an incredible amount of content—you can dive into our site and study about things like recycling and hybrid vehicles. And I believe if people are informed, they are going to make wise choices.

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