Chuck Leavell isn’t the least likely celebrity author to put out a book this year (that honor goes to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi). But Leavell’s journey from high-school dropout to environmental lobbyist rubbing elbows with senators—with stops along the way playing keyboards for the Allman Brothers Band and the Rolling Stones—is still one of the more compelling ones you’ll hear.
In fact, Leavell’s new book, Growing A Better America, is his fourth, and the latest step in his evolution into one of the country’s most outspoken environmental advocates. The book is his attempt to offer a template for more sustainable growth and land use, and unlike his prior three volumes—a children’s book, a memoir, and a book on forests—Growing A Better America is intended to be a serious policy tract targeted at a wide range of adult Americans. “It was Theodore Roosevelt who said more than a hundred years ago, there’s no issue more important to our country than conservation,” Leavell says at a Manhattan coffee house just a few blocks from Electric Lady Studios, where he’s been working on John Mayer’s new album. “And he also said that until we solve our problems relating to the environment, we stand little chance of solving our other problems. It bothers me that we’re not focusing on it more, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get this book out there.”
His path to green evangelist began, improbably enough, when he decided to leave high school in Birmingham, Alabama, for a career in music. After a quick pit stop at the legendary Muscle Shoals studios—Leavell quickly decided he was too unseasoned to cut it with the Swampers, the house rhythm section—he headed toward Macon, where the Allman Brothers were making Capricorn Records a powerhouse. Leavell found work there, first as a sideman and then later, after Duane Allman’s death, as a member of the Allmans (that’s his piano on “Jessica”). But he also met Rose Lane, a young woman who worked at Capricorn and who had grown up on a farm. “You have to appreciate, I was a long-haired hippie boy playing in a rock band, and I had to go to meet the farmer and the family,” he recalls. “I was one nervous individual. But they were so sweet to me, right from the get-go. We began to spend more time out there.”
In 1981, Rose Lane, by now married to Chuck, inherited a piece of land from her grandmother, and Leavell felt he was obligated to learn to work the land. After several months of library research and then a correspondence course from the road—hardly the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of yore—Leavell felt ready to start a tree plantation, and an avocation soon turned to a public role. “After about five years of doing what we were doing, the Georgia Forestry Association found out about me and they came out and they looked me over and said, ‘Hmm, this is interesting: a rock ‘n’ roll guy out here practicing forestry,’” he says. “So they approached me about being a spokesperson.”
What the commission envisioned as a narrowly focused local figurehead role soon became a major part of Leavell’s life—and given the Rolling Stones’ infrequent touring, one that almost eclipses his music (he insists that winning the 1999 Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year award was “equally as good as winning a Grammy as far as I’m concerned.”). In addition to the Mother Nature Network, a green news website he co-founded in 2008, Leavell often pops up on Capitol Hill, visiting fellow tree farmer Senator Dick Lugar and his own senator, Saxby Chambliss.
One thing about those names sticks out: they’re both members of the Republican Party, not the party typically known for its environmental advocacy. While Leavell has words of praise for politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Al Gore and George W. Bush, Growing A Better America puts forth a decidedly conservative argument for environmental policy. It’s a green gospel of personal responsibility and profit motives, arguing that the most effective changes will come when people see a benefit, in both financial and aesthetic terms. “It’s like President Clinton said: We’ll tackle green energy when it’s good business to do so,” Leavell says. “The government can only do so much. We have to have responsible corporations, responsible individuals. I’m a type of person that would not say that we would have to depend on government to do this. We want government to incent it: incent them to buy energy-efficient cars, incent them to insulate their homes.”
Meanwhile, although environmentalists have been repeatedly frustrated by the Obama administration’s policy decisions—which they see as either far too timid or downright wrongheaded–Leavell is circumspect, with praise for Energy Secretary Steven Chu and high-speed rail initiatives. But with budget-cutting all the rage in Washington, he says Americans need to look elsewhere for environmental leadership.
That ability to straddle two sides of an acrimonious divide has served Leavell well—not only in politics, but also in music. Since starting his stint with the Stones in 1982, he’s become an all-around fixer for the band, cuing soloists, reminding Mick Jagger of lyrics—and navigating the choppy waters between Jagger and Keith Richards. Their relationship isn’t as strained as the tabloids might have us believe, he says. “Mick and Keith have certainly found a way to work together. And let me say this: You can’t lose the love that you have when you’ve been together that long,” Leavell says. “They’ve learned the art of compromise. There’s a lot more love there than people know. And tension can be a good thing.”
But a back catalog of books and a rolodex of Washington powerbrokers still hasn’t gotten Leavell one key honor. After 19 years, when will he be promoted from sideman to full member of the Rolling Stones? “Ahh!” he says laughing. “You need to talk to Mick Jagger!”