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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.

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.

AAJ: Readers should know you didn't try to copy these pioneer players, but I was curious which ones come closest to the Chuck Leavell style—as a fan, I would guess Leroy Carr and Otis Spann, but of course I want to ask the master himself.

CL: It's a great question. As you know, of course I had to do a Ray Charles track, because he is my true musical hero. So we looked hard to find something that was very early Ray, and we found "Losing Hand," which is kind of little known. So because I've always loved his playing and he's been such an influence on me, certainly his name would be at the top of the list.

Otis Spann, you're absolutely right, same with Leroy Carr. One interesting thing for me was to get more into stride playing, like Charlie Spand, who wrote "Back to the Woods," and the Leola Manning track that Candi Staton sang on certainly has that. So that really expanded my horizon and caused me to start practicing, because I'd never really done that much stride playing—you know, back-and-forth left-hand bass-note octave, and then the chord behind it.
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