NEW YORK: As musical director for the Rolling Stones, Chuck Leavell knows a thing or two about tickling the ivories.
But the legendary piano man, who’s also played with the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and David Gilmour, spends as much time these days trimming trees. From his Charlane estate in Bullard, Georgia, Leavell manages a sustainable timber operation encompassing almost 4,000 acres of lob lolly, slash and long-leaf pines.
On Thursday, Leavell sat down with Bloomberg to discuss his storied musical career, timber and trade.
Bloomberg News: You met with US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in December. How did that come about?
Chuck Leavell: Sonny was a two-term governor of Georgia, so we had some interaction on policy while he was in office. There are a number of issues in the southeast forestry market that we wanted to bring to his attention. As we all know, there was a tariff put on Canadian lumber because of the so-called softwood wars. When Trump came into office, several Canadian companies saw the writing on the wall and tried to figure out how they could avoid the levies and started buying up mills in the southeast. It’s now kind of bordering on a monopoly of Canadian mills.
As this was going on, the US passed the farm bill, which provides subsidies to American tree farmers and is helping create a glut of timber in the market. So there’s really a two-fold problem. You got a lot of trees on the market and then you got almost a monopoly of Canadian mill ownership.
BN: So what’s the problem?
CL: It means that when you go to big box stores to buy lumber, the price of that 2×4 has been going up over the past decade or so but the profit on the raw material has been flat over that time. When you put pen to paper it doesn’t make sense to grow trees, the market is so bad.
BN: And the solution?
CL: What we’d like to see is tree farmers and forest landowners create a co-op to help offset the imbalance. The problem is that the law says you can’t do that for forestry. You can do it for soybeans, cotton and other agricultural products, but it’s not allowed for forestry. That would take a legislative change. It would take a long time to push it through, but we’re not afraid to give it a go.
BN: How has this affected your estate in Georgia?
CL: Well we also do eco-tourism, like traditional quail-hunting. It’s a great southern tradition that’s not about how many times you pull the trigger, but about being outdoors, watching the dogs point and having that great experience. People stay overnight, we cook for them and give them the whole southern experience. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think we could really sustain on just tree farming because we need that component for income.
BN: So how do you manage your time? Obviously when the Stones go on the road it’s a huge commitment.
CL: Well, fortunately, tree farming is slow motion. It’s not like you have to go out there to weed the garden every week. And we do have a small staff that carries on activities when we’re not there.
BN: President Trump has said the recent wild fires in California could have been prevented with better land management. Do you agree with that?
CL: There is an element of truth to that. First of all, the US Forest Service is under-funded and overworked. I think if they had more personnel and more resources, they could be doing some things like removing underbrush and prescribed burns. The notion that there needs to be proper forest management in this country is correct. You’re not going to be able prevent all of them — it’s part of nature — but if you do it like we do in the southeast with prescribed burning, it can be a great tool.
BN: Enough about trees. Let’s talk about the Stones. You guys are hitting the road again in the spring. Isn’t this getting a bit old?
CL: The band gets better and better, and I mean that sincerely. I’ve been with this outfit for 37 years and it’s never been as good as it is right now. The songs are iconic, Jagger is an amazing front man, and Keith is one of the most amazing guitarists. We start rehearsals in March.
BN: About Keith: He recently told Rolling Stone that he’s cut back on drinking. Can that possibly be true?
CL: Keith has amazing willpower. For somebody who kicked heroin, he knows how to shut the faucet off if he needs to.
BN: Was his drug-infused persona just an act?
CL: (Laughs) His lifestyle speaks for itself. What’s great is that the music has taken precedence.
BN: What’s your favorite Stones song?
CL: There’s so many but I have to point to “Honky Tonk Women.” I remember where I was when that record came out in 1969.
BN: And looking back over your long career, what stands out?
CL: Recording “Brothers and Sisters” and Gregg Allman’s first solo record “Laid Back.” It would be wonderful to say I had success with one band or one artist, but from working with Dr. John prior to the Allman Brothers to Sea Level to Clapton, George Harrison, John Mayer, David Gilmour, the Black Crowes. It’s been a blessing.
Leavell’s latest record, “Chuck Gets Big,” was released in November on BMG.