If you experience the Regions Tradition golf tournament, you have the opportunity to see Hall-of-Fame golfers competing at a major of the PGA TOUR Champions. The best of the best.
This year, if you stick around for the Saturday after-play-ends concert, you can also see another legend.
He’s endorsed by the likes of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, the American Forest Foundation, and the US Forest Service.
Chuck Leavell is no ordinary musician.
Heck, he’s no ordinary forester or environmentalist.
He’s his own man, and he has played with a who’s who of the greatest rock musicians of the last 50 years. But when we recently caught up with him to discuss his birthplace and the show he’s doing as part of the Regions Tradition, he was quick to level-set things about Chuck Leavell.
For him, it’s about passion and finding a balance in life. It’s about remembering where you came from and what your proudest accomplishments really are.
Q: What’s your most vivid memory of growing up and playing in Alabama when you were younger?
A: I was born in Jefferson County. Birmingham. It’s the city of my birth, and it’s just great to be able to come back. My family lived in Birmingham for a bit, moved to Montgomery, then moved back to Birmingham and eventually settled in Tuscaloosa. Tuscaloosa was where I had my first band – the Misfits. It was a great place to grow up as a musician. There were really great musicians throughout the city. A place called Fort Brandon Armory used to hold concerts. That’s where I first saw the Almond Joys, before they became The Allman Brothers Band.
There were also great studios. Muscle Shoals. I did some recording there, and at a couple of studios in Birmingham. I feel so fortunate. The opportunities were there.
Q: You’ve played with so many people – The Allmans, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton … It’s a laundry list of Hall of Famers and legends. But if you had to pick just three songs to play …
A: Oh Lord! That’s a tough one. Certainly “Jessica,” which has definitely been a signature song of mine, the instrumental on The Allman Brothers Band album “Brothers and Sisters.” That one means a lot.
With Eric Clapton, we did the “Unplugged” record back in the early 90s, and there was a song called “Old Love” that I had a really nice feature on. When we rehearsed, we tried that song and Eric had discarded it. I think maybe he felt like it was one slow song too many.
At the show, we’d done a couple of encores, and we were out of songs. I don’t know why, but Eric turned to me and he said, “What can we do, man?” I said do “Old Love.” It was kind of a happy accident for me.
The third one is working with David Gilmour, the voice and guitar of Pink Floyd, and getting to do the counterpart to “Comfortably Numb.” David was most kind to give me that feature, and it was just a real trip. He’s such a gentleman, amazing to work with. He and I have a lot in common. He is a great conservationist, by the way, and a very talented woodworker. He builds some of his own furniture, and he’s quite an amazing human being.
Q: What’s clear – if you watch the documentary (“The Tree Man”) or read about you – is there are many facets to the Renaissance Man, Chuck Leavell.
A: I appreciate that, but I don’t know about being a renaissance man! I think when one has passion for certain things and an interest, a will to learn and educate oneself, it’s impossible not to follow these paths.
People sometimes ask if you had to choose between managing my forest land or playing music, what would it be? For heaven’s sakes, don’t make me choose! Why would you? Why should you? Where do you think that incredible instrument that has given me so much joy and such a great career came from?
Q: What should people expect when they come to see you at this year’s Regions Tradition?
A: First of all, it’s going to be great to be back in my hometown, and we’re going to celebrate that. In terms of the music — without giving it all away – I’ve been so fortunate in my career to play with so many different great artists: Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour. So, we’ll celebrate that and do some of my own material from my band, Sea Level. We’re just going to have a good old time and hopefully get smiles on people’s faces.
Q: Are you a golfer?
A: My dad loved golf. My mom played and loved it. But I just found myself too busy playing music and doing other things. But a lot of my musician friends, especially those from Nashville, are golfers. They love golfing. But man, I love watching golf on television. I just saw the Masters. Wonderful tournament
Q: You’ve been playing music professionally for more than 50 years. Like a golfer, how do you balance yourself and do the best you can regardless of the conditions, audience or night?
A: Every time you get on the stage it’s going to be a little bit different. I do strive for consistency, and I do strive to focus and not be afraid to fail. You may find yourself in a moment where you think, I’m going to go for this. Maybe I’m not sure I can do this riff as good as I think I can, but I’m going to go for it.
Sometimes, you make it. Sometimes you may fall a little bit short. But if you don’t try, I find that that’s where you’re out of kilter. You got to be a little bit fearless. I use the word “balance” quite a lot. We talk about balance in forestry but also balance in life and balance in playing music. If more of us could think about that in our lives, it would be a little bit better world.
Q: So, how do you take all the things that are important to you and balance them, make ample time and treat them with the appropriate amount of respect?
A: That is a tough, tough question. I have multiple interests that I enjoy. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have the time I would like to have. I would love to go to a four-year forestry school, but I’ve learned a lot on my own and from the good graces of other foresters. I am an honorary member of the Society of American Foresters, and that means a lot to me. It really does.
But I believe if you have a passion for something and you’re willing to take the time to study it, to learn it, and to try it out, that’s a good thing. You never know where it might lead you.
It’s hard work, too. You don’t just wake up one morning and can do these things. You have to work at it, and you have to put in the time. If you’re willing to do that, you’re probably going to get where you want.
Q: If you listen to the legends you’ve played with talk about you, almost to a person, they use a term about you that’s interesting: they call you “a good man.” It’s said with respect and admiration, signifying a level of trustworthiness. What’s behind that?
A: I don’t know, man. It’s flattering. I try to be a good listener. My parents taught me from a young age to try to be a good listener. Not just passively listening to people. But being genuinely interested in what they have to say, who they are, what their challenges are, what their hopes and dreams are, and maybe that has something to do with it.
That also translates, as a musician. When you’re in the middle of playing with others, to have the ability to listen while you were playing. That’s where the magic really happens, when you can pick up on something the guitar player does or the drummer or the sax player.
I’ve had great gigs with a lot with English musicians because they have a great reverence for Southern musicians, whether we’re talking about Delta Blues or gospel or country or whatever.
I tell people that my fingers have a Southern accent! But it really comes from listening intently to other musicians while you’re playing, and also in life when you’re having a conversation with someone or talking about a certain subject matter or about their lives, whatever it might be. Just listen intently and try to soak up what’s being said.
Q: What are the three things – across the breadth of your career and life – that you’re proudest of?
A: That’s pretty easy. Family first. Rose Lane and I will be celebrating our 50th anniversary in a couple of months, and it’s been a remarkable partnership and marriage. Wonderful daughters, sons-in-laws and grandchildren. Certainly proud of who they are and who they’ve become.
I guess my career as a musician. I’ve been blessed to work with all these different artists and to have these wonderful experiences. So that one certainly stands out. And then, you know, the opportunity to leave a bit of a legacy with the work that I’ve done in forestry and the environment. The books that I’ve written – “Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest,” the children’s book called “The Tree Farmer,” and “Growing a Better America.” To be able to try to get these messages out in different ways, it is also very important to me.
So, you know – family, trees and keys, man.