Posted March, 2012
If you’ve been following Boomerocity at all, you know that we’re absolutely nuts over Rose Lane and Chuck Leavell. We have them placed on a very high pedestal for a lot of reasons – reasons such as their strong marriage (38 years and counting), their devotion to family as well as the incredible work in forestry and conservation.
Of course, in the world of music, Chuck Leavell is one of THE class acts in rock and roll. As noted in our interview with Chuck just slightly over a year ago (here), this man has tickled the ivories with the biggest names in rock and roll, R&B, country and other genres. When you add to all of that his autobiography (Between Rock and a Home Place) and his books on forestry and conservation, I’d say that all of these accomplishments pretty much put Mr. Leavell in line for nomination into the Renaissance Man Hall of Fame.
Leavell is now carving out yet another niche of excellence with his homage to the early greats of the blues piano via his latest album, Back To The Woods. If you love blues – and if you love piano – then you’re going to absolutely love this album and can read the Boomerocity review of it here.
Chuck was kind enough to send me a review copy of Woods and before I could even finish my first pass at the disc, I fired off a note to him asking if we could chat about the album. Ever the gentleman, he obliged.
Before we hunkered down to chatting about Back To The Woods, I asked Leavell how things were going at the beautiful Charlane Plantation (which is on my bucket to visit). Not surprisingly, his response exhibited his love for not only the property but also the work associated with it.
“We're doing great here. We had the best quail hunting season we've ever had, and in spite of the drought of 2011 (we were about 12 inches under for rainfall for the year), our forest and wildlife habitat are in fine shape. We have also started to experiment with retreats from time to time, which amounts to offering a few days here for folks to relax, take a forestry tour, walk our nature trail, paint (my wife, Rose Lane, is an artist), do photography, whatever…and be well fed in the process. We post the offerings on our site: www.charlane.com. We love what we do here and are very passionate about it.”
When I asked him if he was happy with how his conservation work was going, with a healthy, balanced pride he said, “Very much so. The US Forest Service recently gave me an Honorary Ranger Award, which is as good - or better - than the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award we just got for the Allman Brothers Band. Chief Tom Tidwell came down to Atlanta to present it to me, along with about 100 uniformed Rangers in attendance. It was a very special day for me.
“Also, we continue to grow at our environmental website, The Mother Nature Network (www.mnn.com). We are getting over 4 million visits a month, and recently passed the EPA in visits per month. MNN gives me a wonderful platform to keep folks in tune with environmental issues of all kinds - whether it's recycling, energy use, community and/or personal responsibility issues, we cover it all.
“My recent book, Growing A Better America, is doing well and can now be found in over 20 airports across the country as well as online on my site, www.chuckleavell.com, Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, etc. So I continue to get my messages out there as best and as often as possible.”
As we shifted gears to discuss Back To the Woods, I unashamedly gushed that my two favorites from the album are Loosing Hand and Boots and Shoes. I asked Chuck what drove him to tackle such a project.
“It came at the suggestion of my son-in-law, Steve Bransford. Steve is a wonderful guy, and oh so smart. He is a PhD graduate from Emory University in Atlanta. His discipline is American History with an emphasis on visual arts and roots music. How cool is that? So Steve comes to me a little over a year ago and says, 'You know, there has been a lot of projects that celebrate folks like blues guitar players, blues songwriters and singers, jazz figures and such, but to my knowledge, no one has paid tribute to the early blues piano players . . . and I think you are the guy to do it’ and he hands me 3 CDs of some 150 early recordings to listen to. Much of it I was already aware of, but quite a lot of it was new to me.
“So I began listening and eventually selected about 50 songs that I thought would be appropriate for me to interpret. From there, we culled it down to 15 for the project. These are mostly unknown or little known names - Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Skip James - although we did cover an Otis Spann song and a very early Ray Charles song, both of which you mentioned. Losing Hand was recorded by Ray in 1953, I believe, and Boots and Shoes, the Spann track, was the most recent song in terms of the project - somewhere around 1963. Most of the other recordings we covered were pre-war era.”
In explaining how working on Woods was different to work on than any of the previous albums - solo or otherwise – Chuck said, “It has this particular focus of paying homage to these blues pianists. We have a 16 page booklet in the package that gives some history of these artists, and explain the role of the piano during this period in American history. In terms of the music itself, my intention was to interpret them in a more modern setting, more modern arrangements…but keeping the essence of the songs intact. In doing that, it shows how these players have influenced my own style. It was a very targeted project.”
Knowing that Leavell’s musical education is both broad and deep, I asked him how much of the music on Woods inspired him early in his career and how much of it he’s discovered later on in life.
“Most of this music I discovered later in my career but I started listening to Ray Charles quite early on. My parents had some of his records and I just loved them. When I was about 13 I went with my sister, Judy, to a Ray Charles concert in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we grew up. It totally changed my life. I was already playing piano and guitar and that night I decided that I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life.
“Ray is still my true musical hero. The other artists came later for me. Otis Spann played quite a lot with Muddy Waters and other Chicago blues artists. I probably started listening to that stuff when I was 17 or so. The more obscure artists on our project I probably became aware of around the early 70's and beyond. Hey! I'm still a student!”
Like many of you, I can’t just listen to an album and enjoy the music. I have to know not only who played on an album but who engineered it, where all it was recorded and, if the songs aren’t written by the recording artists, how did they come about selecting other peoples songs to record. In the case of Back To The Woods, I was also curious as to how Chuck decided who would play on which songs. For instance, did John Mayer say, "Hey! I want to play on Wish Me Well and Boots and Shoes!"?
“We were so fortunate to get them. Starting with Keith, I contacted him and he agreed to play on it, but I would have to do it in NY. As I was calling around to try and find a studio, I contacted John's right hand guy, Ken Helie. I had already been working with John on his record at Electric Lady Studios up there. I asked Ken if he had a contact at ELS for me to book some time. He came back to me to say that John would be happy for me to use some of his time that he had blocked out.
“So that begged the question would John come and play, too? He agreed, and we got them both in the same day. It was so great. But before I got them, we had recorded most of the tracks in my friend Jim Hawkins' studio in Athens, Georgia, with a core band of me, Chris Enghauser on stand up bass and Louis Romonos on drums. Steve, my son-in-law and co-producer with me, suggested we invite Danny Barnes to come in. Danny is amazing, and I love his solo work. If you don't know him, you gotta check him out. His latest is called Rocket. Danny is multi-instrumental - plays guitar, banjo, tuba and more. He plays all of that on the record and also sings a duet with me on the Leroy Carr tune Memphis Town and does the lead vocal on Naptown Blues, a Carr song about the city of Indianapolis.
“Steve also suggested getting Col. Bruce Hampton on Got To Go Blues and Candi Staton on a duet with me on Mean Mistreater. Candi does lead vocal on The Blues Is All Wrong. Then I got my old pals Randall Bramblett and Davis Causey on some tracks to round it out. We had so much fun!”
With Chuck’s mention of Candi Staton, I was reminded of her great gospel work in the 80’s so I asked him to expound on her inclusion on the album.
“We were looking for a ‘female foil’ for me on a couple of songs. We tried to get Susan Tedeschi, but she was busy. Then we tried to get Grace Potter she showed interested, but she was also too busy to get to it. So Steve told me ‘do you remember Candi Staton? She lives near here’. I loved that idea. She had some great R & B hits in the late 60's and early 70's before she turned to mostly gospel, as you note. She came in and just nailed it. I'm booked for the New Orleans Jazz Fest on April 27th, and have secured Bonnie Bramlett to sing with me on the gig. She is great and I can't wait to do that gig. I'm bringing in Danny Barnes as well, and Randall's band will be the core.
Concluding his comments about the actual recording of the album, Leavell adds, “Danny, Candi, Col Bruce, Randall and Davis were all done in Athens . . . but Keith and John were done in NY as noted previously.”
Do any of these tunes generate special memories or have special meaning for Chuck?
“Well, they all throw you back in time. I love the Ray tune, Losing Hand. Classic Ray when he was focusing more on blues than jazz, pop or country as he did later in his career. Pure blues, and he was a master. I love the Little Brother Montgomery stuff, too, especially Vicksburg Blues, which I do on my own, piano and vocal. It is such a plaintive song and you can just feel the pain he's going through. I've been a Memphis Slim fan for a long time and getting John to play on Wish Me Well was perfect. He killed it. It was all a wonderful journey for me.”
Piggy-backing on this same vein of thought, I asked Leavell if he knew if any of the tunes on the album had special meaning to any of his guest artists.
Sure. Danny and Keith are both very well aware of most of this stuff - especially the Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (guitar) recordings. Danny and I actually talked about doing some Carr/Blackwell stuff a while back, but it didn't happen until I put this together. A lot of what we unearthed was not known to the players and the guests - even me - until Steve turned me on to them. I'd never heard of Barrel House Buck McFarland, Leona Manning, Jesse James and some of the others.
As I’ve said in other interviews, I quit asking an artist if they had a favorite song on their album – especially if they wrote the tunes themselves. However, many artists feel that there’s a particular song that serves as a calling card, if you will, for the rest of the album. When I asked Chuck if he felt there’s such a song on Woods, he replied, “Ouch! That is a tough one, and a bit unfair to ask. It's like picking a favorite child. I guess if you push me to the wall, since Ray Charles is still my hero, I'd point to Losing Hand, but they are all about equal to me.
As to the question of whether he will be supporting the disc with any public performances or touring, in answering it Leavell shared some insight into the recent announcement by John Mayer that he was cancelling his scheduled tour and how that impacted him.
“Well, at present we all know that I was supposed to tour with John Mayer this year. We had put together a fantastic band, and I had worked on his new release, Born and Raised, over the course of the last year. I think it's a wonderful piece of work, and we were all (including John) so looking forward to the tour.
“But then his throat problem, a thing called a granuloma which is kind of like a blister growth in between his vocal chords, returned after his surgery and 4 months of treatment and recovery. We were in LA just in our fourth day of rehearsals - all going so great when he began to struggle. He saw his Dr. that evening and we all got the bad news: the tour had to be cancelled.
“It was a big blow to all of us, but especially for John. We'll all be fine, and I'm grateful that I got to play on Born and Raised, which is now out and that I got to do Back To The Woods. So yes, I'll be focusing on that now. We're still reeling from the cancellation now and I'm starting to sort out ‘Plan B’. But life goes on, and things will take their natural course. I know we all send love to John and hopes for a full recovery down the road. He's a very special man and a very special talent.
As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Chuck if it was too soon to ask what's next from him in the way of books, CDs (like, maybe, a follow up to Woods?) and/or DVDs.
“I'll do some dates of my own to promote Back, I'll spend some time on MNN business, and I'll be able to do work on Charlane Plantation. I'm also in discussions with a writing partner to do a book about musicians that have played a significant role with a band or artist, but that are little known names. I had the pleasure recently to be in Billy Bob Thornton's next film, Jayne Mansfield's Car. I have two short cameos in it - one where I'm playing in a band at a street party and another in a barber shop where I deliver a line to Robert Duval. It was a real hoot, and I'm grateful to Billy for including me. He's a good friend and a great guy. The film will probably come out in the fall of this year, but no solid release date yet. It's a great script with some fine actors. Billy is in it as well as having co-witten and directed it. Kevin Bacon, John Hurt and others. I'll also start thinking about my next musical project - maybe a country record . . . not sure yet.”
Then, closing with just a bit of a tease, Chuck adds, “And of course there are those Brits that might decide to come out of hiding one of these days. We'll see. One day at a time.”
Now, who do you suppose Chuck would be referring to?