Rock ‘n’ Roll Tree Farmer: Inside a Rolling Stone’s Business

Chuck Leavell spends a lot of nights together with the Rolling Stones. But the veteran piano player, who has been a de facto member of the legendary rock ’n’ roll band for more than three decades, gets just as much satisfaction from trees.

When he’s not playing with the Stones or other stars such as Eric Clapton and Greg Allman, Leavell manages a 2,900-acre tree farm and hunting lodge in Georgia that he runs with his wife. “I have a deep love of both things, working in the studio or on the stage, and working in the woods and entertaining our clients,” Leavell says. “Both have challenges and rewards.”

Leavell, 62, has long had to balance the demands of his business with those of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. When the Stones are touring—several months every few years—he’s on the road playing keyboards and serving as the band’s musical director, helping everyone remember the details of songs they wrote decades ago.

Back at home in Georgia, he tends to Charlane Plantation, about two hours southeast of Atlanta. The business has its challenges—he’s had to cope with the housing bust, which felled timber prices in recent years—but Leavell says he’s always re-energized by his return to the woods after weeks on the road.

Leavell at Berlin's Brandenburg GatePhotograph by Esme RocksLeavell at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate

“I fell in love with living in the country,” Leavell said on a stroll through the Tiergarten, a vast wooded park in the center of Berlin, on the day before the band was to perform in Germany’s capital.

“It’s not just about the forest,” Leavell said, pointing out the thick vegetation in an area that had been stripped bare by Berliners desperate for firewood in the winter after World War II. “It’s all about the flora and the fauna within.”

When he travels with the Stones, Leavell slips in meetings with forestry contacts he has developed over the years. In Dusseldorf, on the band’s recent swing through Europe, he discussed hunting rights with a German who owns land near Leavell’s in Georgia. In Rome, he met with a representative of the World Resources Institute, an environmental research group based in Washington. And during his solo tour of Germany in 2007, Leavell got together with forestry officials across the country.

Leavell has used his association with the Stones and other rockers to advance a variety of green causes. He co-founded Mother Nature Network, an environment-focused news website, in 2009. He has written several books on conservation and forestry, and he works with numerous groups devoted to the environment.

“Chuck’s the real deal, not just a master musician and entertainer but also a very knowledgeable and committed environmentalist and land manager,” said Chip Barber of the World Resources Institute, who dined with Leavell in Rome during the Stones tour. “He can go seriously into the weeds on forest issues, but also on other major environmental and human challenges.”

At Charlane, Leavell spends his days working with two full-time employees, who take care of the machinery and the animals, and directing crews of temps at harvest time or for big parties. His wife inherited the core of the plantation, and she and Leavell have more than doubled its size. He drives the tractor, cuts trees, and greets and hunts with guests who come for quail shoots, weddings, and retreats.

Leavell says that working with showmen such as Jagger and Richards has particularly helped him fulfill that part of the job. “Playing with the Stones is all about entertaining folks, helping them to forget their problems and have a good time for a few hours,” Leavell says in his Alabama drawl. “It’s exactly the same with our weddings and other events.” His rock ’n’ roll pedigree has also helped attract repeat visitors to the farm, where some guests relish rubbing elbows with a guy who’s on a first-name basis with Mick and Keith.

Leavell rings the Closing Bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 11, 2012, in New YorkPhotograph by Ben Hider/NYSE EuronextLeavell rings the Closing Bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 11, 2012, in New York

The core of the operation, though, is trees, which puts Leavell at the mercy of commodities cycles. With the economic crisis and housing bust of the past several years, he has had to depend on alternative revenue streams such as selling pine straw to landscapers and pulp to paper makers—and his music.

“The numbers are very much a roller-coaster ride from year to year,” Leavell says. “You don’t want to sell timber that took you 30 years to grow at the bottom of the market, so you might have to wait five or six years.”

Of even greater concern is that the music will someday have to stop. The Stones have been at it for more than 50 years—32 of them with Leavell on keys. Jagger and Richards are both 70. At age 73, drummer Charlie Watts has said the band needs to do shorter tours.

“Performing and making music, recording, writing songs is food for the band. They get hungry and have to eat,” Leavell says. “The hardest concept is not doing this. And I know there will come a time when we won’t be able to—at least not in this form—and it hurts me to think about that because this is so much fun.”

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