INTERVIEWS

Desert Sun 92260 Magazine
(Palm Springs)

By Allegra Kazemzadeh

 

     Like a rolling stone. Well, maybe not exactly, but J. Marshall Craig has come pretty close, having experienced life on the road with one of rock n’ roll’s most famous bands—the Rolling Stones. He’s partied with the guys, shared meals and shared stories, toured with the band in Europe and Asia, seen Hong Kong harbor by boat with Keith, and experienced the adrenaline rush of walking out on stage with Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie before the house lights go up and thousands of screaming fans burst into thunderous applause.

 

     How did Craig get so lucky? In a round-about fashion actually, with one thing leading to another leading to opportunities many of us would envy. It all started when Craig was 16. Needing some income, Craig took a part-time job covering municipal council meetings for a local paper, the daily Guelph Mercury,  in southern Ontario, Canada. A year later he did the Woodward and Bernstein thing, breaking a big story that included some real cloak and dagger work. Craig hopped a gated fence in to a health-authority sealed summer camp to collect a water sample to prove the drinking water had been contaminated by sewage, which was why a number of children had been sent to hospital – contrary to the official report of a “stomach flu.” His story was picked up by The New York Times.

 

     Eventually Craig found himself covering the entertainment industry. “I went on junkets to L.A. and New York,” says Craig. “I think about the only big stars I haven’t interviewed were Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand.” His celebrity interviews lead to minor celebrity for himself, with his weekly commentary on radio and T.V.—all of which eventually led to writing rock biographies. 

 

     “My first book wasn’t a biography though,” Craig explains. “It was a cook book. I was trying to write a novel and wasn’t really motivated. I got a new Mac and thought, ‘I’ll organize my recipes.’ The next thing I knew I had a cookbook.” 

 

     The cookbook’s title, Playing with Your Food, is a taste of what makes Craig tick. He’s a creative type with a sense of humor and a penchant for doing things just a bit out of the ordinary. Like his films. His first feature film, Fabulous Shiksa in Distress, was shot in one day. “I’m a little cynical about traditional process - especially in light of current technology,” says Craig. “It comes from the movie business. An example. I had a cameo in a film with Nick Cage. We were in my Ontario hometown with the make-up trailers a mile away from the set. We were standing around in the freezing cold for hours. You could tell Nick did really care about the movie. No one else really wanted to be there.” Producer Craig’s method of putting the bloom back on the rose? A shooting schedule that keeps everyone in constant motion. A one-day shoot doesn’t allow anyone to be apathetic or bored! 

 

     Hanging with the Stones also helps keeps apathy at bay. “I asked Keith,” says Craig, “how after 40 years of performing they can still have their enthusiasm. You can feel the buzz. Keith said, ‘That first song. It’s like—let the tigers out of the cage.’ Knowing that they still have a kind of sincere wonder and love for the music makes it fun to be around them.”

HITTIn' The Note Magazine

By John Lynskey

     “I think all of us feel like we have a story to tell, and this is kind of a mid-way point for me.  I’m 52 years old, I have had a great career so far, and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have all these wonderful experiences with so many talented musicians, so I thought this was the right time to tell those stories,” explains keyboardist Chuck Leavell about his decision to release his autobiography, Between Rock and a Home Place.  “I hope that there will be more stories in the next 10, 15, or 20 years, but, right now, things are fresh in my mind.”  In its eight chapters and nearly 300 pages, the book relates not only Chuck’s rise to the top as the most acclaimed rock keyboardist of the last 30 years, but also the extreme dichotomy of his life.  Chuck and his wife, Rose Lane, also manage Charlane Plantation, 2200 acres of rolling pines in Middle Georgia, and Chuck is recognized as one of the leading authorities on forestry issues in the world, and his dedication to sustainability and the environment is well known.  He is indeed the master of keys and trees, and his passion for both is intense, so his adult life has been spent literally between rocking with the likes of the Allman Brothers, Sea Level, Eric Clapton, George Harrison - and particularly the Rolling Stones - and his home place at Charlane.  Chuck offers his life story in an open and relaxed style; another refreshing thing about this book is that it tells all, without being a cheap, exploitive tell-all about rock and roll excess.  Between Rock and a Home Place is an honest account of what matters most to Chuck Leavell - his family and his music.

     “There have been a lot of anniversaries in the last year that mean a lot to me,” Chuck continues.  “The Stones’ 40thanniversary, which also marked my 20th year with them, and the 30th anniversary of Brothers and Sisters as well, so some landmark things have gone down.  One way to celebrate was to recall all of those wonderful times, and it was fun writing about them.” 

     One of the most engaging things about Rock and Home is how Chuck and co-author J. Marshall (Jeff) Craig chose to tell the story.  Instead of following a chronological path through Chuck’s life, the book opens with “Animals at the Border,” which details the last frenetic days of the Rolling Stones’ Forty Licks tour in 2003, and Chuck’s long-awaited return to the peace and serenity of Charlane.  It certainly grabs the attention of the reader.  “I really have to credit Jeff for that decision,” Chuck discloses. “If I had done this completely on my own, I probably would have done what most people do, and start at the beginning of my life and move forward.  It was Jeff’s idea to start the book with what was going on in my life right at that moment, which was the end of the Stones’ tour, and all the excitement that obviously goes with that.  What an interesting idea to start it from that perspective, and then move to my first day home at Charlane, which gives people a sense of the music, as well as the meaning of home in my life.  I think it sets the tone for the rest of the book. 

     “From there, it was easy to work backwards to my youth, and then move forward through the years.  We knew we would have chapters on the Allman Brothers, Sea Level, the Stones, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton, but we did face an obstacle in how to deal with all the interesting little side things - the odds and ends - that I have done in my career.  I mean, the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, BHLT, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Gov’t Mule, plus all the one-off performances that I have done over the years - the list is pretty long.  Jeff’s proposal was to bunch them all together in a separate chapter - I thought that was a cool idea, so we put that in Chapter Eight, ‘A Little On the Side.’  That gave us the basic layout for the story, and it all came together after that.”

     Chuck has the highest possible regard for Craig, and, as he relates, “Jeff and I have known each other for about 10 years.  He did a wonderful article on me for the Edmonton Sun, so we started a relationship and became friends.  He moved to California, and got involved with screenplays and television stuff, but we always stayed in touch, and we would see each other at Stones’ shows.  I always thought he was an engaging, intelligent fellow, and he wrote a great book on Eric Burdon that I read and really enjoyed.  I had been having these thoughts about putting my reflections down on paper, and I just felt that Jeff was the perfect choice.  He’s a dedicated hard worker, and he came to this project incredibly well prepared.  I was just so impressed with his drive and ideas.  This was a true collaboration, and I’m very proud of that.”

     Chapter Two, “If Not For the Women In My Life,” is a very personal look at Chuck’s childhood in Alabama, and the closeness of his family.  His mother Frances played the piano and sparked Chuck’s interest in the instrument, and his older sister Judy changed his life by taking him to a Ray Charles concert when Chuck was 10 years-old.  His father, Billy, was an insurance salesman who taught Chuck the meaning of integrity and a man keeping his word, but who sadly died of cancer two days before Chuck’s 18th birthday.  Chuck also describes the special relationship he has with his brother Billy, who is 14 years older than Chuck, and, although he was born deaf, Billy was almost like a second father to Chuck.  “Weaving all the personal details into that chapter - and what to leave in and what to leave out - required a lot of work, and a lot of editing,” Chuck says. “But I think we found the important things, the things I really wanted to say about what truly touched me growing up.”                  

     Chapter Two delves into Chuck’s musical beginnings as well - forming his first band, the Misfitz, at age 14, and meeting up with keyboardist Paul Hornsby in a later band called South Camp.  It was Paul who convinced Chuck to leave Tuscaloosa and check out the burgeoning music scene in Macon, Georgia, where, through fate and a little luck, he would join the Allman Brothers Band and meet his future wife, Rose Lane. 

     In Chapter Three, “Becoming a Brother and a Husband,” Chuck details the circumstances that led to his becoming a member of the Allman Brothers, and his courtship of and marriage to Rose Lane White, who at the time was an employee of Capricorn Records.  It all came together so quickly and easily that Chuck himself couldn’t believe it.  As he tells it in the book, “Finally, I had been handed the big break, as they say.  I had just turned 20, and I was on top of the world!” 

     One of the most impressive aspects of Chuck’s relating his time with the Allman Brothers is that he concentrates on the magnificent music they made - the recording of Brothers and Sisters, and the pride he has about playing on his theme song, “Jessica.”  What he downplays are the drug use and internal politics that ripped the band apart.  He doesn’t deny the drug situation, but he doesn’t elaborate, and he certainly doesn’t condone it, either.  Chuck explains that the era was the era, and drugs were a reality, but not the key part of the story.  “Jeff and I talked about that, and I said, ‘Jeff, whatever bands or groups that I have worked with, we all know that drugs have been around.’  There have been other books - several, in fact - that chose to attempt writing about that in detail, but that was not the story I cared to tell.  To me, it was there, it was real, and we all participated to some degree - some more than others - but that is not the real story of my experience with the Allman Brothers.  I wanted to talk about the music, the events, and my bandmates - that’s what mattered to me, and the story that I wanted to tell.  As I wrote in the book, the bottom line is, my era with the Allman Brothers was absolutely golden.”                

     “Heading Out to Sea” is focused around Chuck’s time in Sea Level, and, while he writes in detail about the unique music the group made, the most telling aspect of the chapter is how candid Chuck is about the fracturing of relationships within the group.  The replacing of bassist Lamar Williams and the dismissal of Willie Perkins as the group’s manager - both of whom were dear friends - were painful, and Chuck deals with those situations up front.  “That was a part of my musical life that I don’t mind talking about, because that’s my perspective on what happened.  God rest his soul, if Lamar was alive today, he would have his story to tell, and I would respect that.  The true, gratifying thing about that whole situation was that Lamar and I did resolve it.  Had he gone to his grave without us shaking hands and having a hug - I don’t know - that would have been very difficult to live with.  That was a painful thing, but everybody goes through something like that, and I didn’t want to shy away from that.  

     “Willie to this day is a great friend, and that is a fortunate outcome.  With Lamar, we were able to reach an understanding, and I have a feeling that if he were alive today, we would be very good friends.  It’s water under the bridge with Willie, and I can’t wait to read the book that he’s writing.  He’ll have lots of great stories to tell!

     “To me, life is all about relationships - you can measure success in a lot of ways, but to me, success is measured in relationships with people you know and work with, and the way those relationships progress.  That’s just the way I feel about it.  I’ve had some wonderful experiences with so many people.  Butch Trucks will always be a great friend to me for the experiences that we shared - Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Jaimoe, Randall Bramblett, Jimmy Nalls - what a joy to have played with them.  For those who are still around, I want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to them - I want to always be able to communicate with those guys.

     “The question is often asked, ‘Do you have any regrets?’  For me, the answer is ‘No.’  I have no regrets - some things in life are sad and hard to take, but they are what they are.  You have to accept them, and then move on.  Like with Sea Level, when we had to do that ‘pay the bills’ tour.  It wasn’t easy, but like I wrote in the book, ‘It was taking the high road - the only one I’m comfortable on.’  I learned from my father that a deal’s a deal - you live up to your word, and do what you agreed to do.  My dad taught me that you look a man in the eye, shake his hand, and live up to what you promised to do, no matter how tough it may be.  The key is to then move forward, put one foot in front of the other, and reach higher.”

     Chapter Five, “From Keys to Trees,” is the “commune with nature” section of the book.  It details the challenges faced by Chuck and Rose Lane in 1981, when they inherited 1,200 acres of land from Rose Lane’s grandmother.  They found themselves in debt to the IRS, the place needed a lot of work, and Chuck didn’t have the first idea of how to manage the land.  Through hard work, perseverance, and determination, over the past 20 years, Chuck and Rose Lane have doubled the size of Charlane Plantation and have turned it into one of the most successful family-run forest preserves in the nation.  Chuck and Rose Lane were named National Outstanding Tree Farmers in 1999, and Chuck’s passion for trees now equals his love of music.  “I guess things happen in life that we never expect, and I certainly never expected this.  The success that we’ve had at Charlane has a lot to do with passion and commitment.  When you become engrossed in something, and consumed by it, you realize things that you didn’t realize before.  It becomes important to you, and you become absolutely committed to it.  The commitment then turns into the passion, and, to me, that is the drive of life.  Everybody needs to find a passion, and I’ve been so fortunate to find this other passion - this unexpected passion - and I had no idea that forestry, conservation, and ecology would come to me.  Just like Ray Charles, it changed my life.  It fascinates me, and, like music, I still have a long journey ahead of me in forestry.  I am so grateful for this, and I don’t know how it happened - maybe it fell from the sky, or landed in my lap, a happy accident, or whatever - this land means so much to me.”       

     Two chapters discussing Chuck’s 20 years with the Rolling Stones are chock full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes of life with the world’s greatest rock and roll band.  There is everything you’d want to know about how the Stones operate, but one sentence jumps out at the reader.  When Chucks writes, “The truth is, they’re people, just like you and me,” it brings a sense of perspective that is not usually associated with the Rolling Stones.  As Chuck elaborates, “I wanted to, in some way, humanize those individuals, because people talk about a lot of icons in this world, and the Rolling Stones are right up there.  The fans love them for their music, or cultural aspect, or what ever it might be, but hey - what about their work ethic?  That’s what I appreciate.  They have stuck to it, all these years, and that is what really impresses me about the Rolling Stones.  The bottom line is, they are all human beings.  They all wake up, wash their face, put their clothes on, and decide what they’re going to do with their day.  They all have emotions, they all have stresses, they all have joy and love, and they all have family.  My basic thought when I got that first audition with the Stones was, ‘It’s just another band.  It’s just music, and they are going to put their pants on the same way that I do.  This is going to be fun.’  

     “I want the reader to understand that these ‘icons’ go home to problems - everybody goes home to problems, and everybody goes home to good things.  These guys are world famous, sure, but they are still people.  Like with Keith Richards - let me tell you what image pops in my mind when I think of Keith.  I see him with his reading glasses on, and a big ol’ fat book on World War II out in front of him, sitting on the sofa, with music playing behind him.  Keith is one of the most intellectual persons I can name, and he is so engaging.  When you have a conversation with him, it is always lively, and he is passionate about whatever the topic is.  Whether it’s music, history, or geography, Keith is stimulating, and just fun to talk to.  People will always have a certain image of him - and the rest of guys - but the truth is, they are human beings.”

     “Unplugged and Beatled” is dedicated to Chuck’s time with George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and is one of the most interesting chapters in the book.  Chuck played with Harrison on his 1991 tour of Japan, and is clearly still over the top about that experience: “The moment you would lay your eyes on George, his gaze would go into your eyes, the smile was there, and the aura of the man was immediate - there was no question about how good a person he was.  George meant the world to me when I was growing up, and he was always my favorite Beatle, so to walk in the room and meet him was one thing, but to play with him - Jeez!

     “George was very special to me - his kindness, his ability to chuckle - I’ll never forget that.  He always had a smile on his face, he made you feel good - I really can’t remember a negative moment around George.  He was always very positive, and I never really thought about it until this moment, but he almost paralleled my mother in that regard.  They both felt that life was good, and that we should be grateful to be here.  That’s how she looked at life, and that’s how George looked at it as well.”                           

     Chuck also spent two years playing with Eric Clapton and made a major contribution to the now legendary Unplugged CD in 1992.  While there are plenty of details about the Clapton experience, Chuck summed it all up in one sentence when he wrote, “Eric taught me eloquence in music.”  “Eric is eloquent - in so many ways,” Chuck states.  “In his artistry, in the way he plays the guitar, the way he presents himself - eloquent is a good word to use.  Eloquent - and elegant as well.  Eric is the consummate professional, and very humble about his ability.  He has always been gracious about praising other guitarists - Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, Buddy Guy - he always acknowledges the talents of others, and I admire that about Eric.”      

      In the epilogue, Chuck sums up his experiences with the following sentence: “I’ve had a career of incredible highs, and in the scheme of things, relatively few lows.”  Chuck reflects, saying, “I’ve been blessed.  I would like to think that I’ve had a successful career, and I go back to what my father taught me, and that is that you make your own luck.  If you want something out of life, you can’t sit back and have them come to you.  You have to go out there and find it.  I was up in Atlanta the other day, speaking at Camp Jam, a summer program for young musicians.  I was looking at those kids, and all of them were excited about music, and that is what I tried to tell them.  I said, ‘You know what?  This may be just a hobby, and that’s great, but it may wind up being your career.  If you choose it as your career, all I can tell you is what my father told me: make your own luck.  

     “I remember days when I would go to Muscle Shoals and hang out, hoping to find an opportunity to go inside the studio and have somebody hear me play.  The other theme that came out of my talk to them was how one thing leads to another.  Really, that is the story of my career.  Paul Hornsby led me over to Macon, which led to Sundown, then Alex Taylor led me to Dr. John and eventually to the Allman Brothers, and then Sea Level, with those bands leading me to the Rolling Stones, and that led me to Eric Clapton and George Harrison.  If you follow the chain of events, I was fortunate, but a lot of that had to do with making my own luck.  It’s about seeing opportunities, knowing what to do, and knowing how to encourage it to happen for you.  Luck is when hard work meets opportunity, and when the opportunity is there, you have to recognize it for what it is, then take advantage of it.  I’ve been blessed with some amazing opportunities over the years.

      Now, like all musicians, I have been ripped off and taken advantage of, but like Butch Trucks says so perfectly in the book’s introduction, ‘You just have to laugh at the bad stuff, because we got to make magic.’  I wish that had been my quote, but I compliment Butch for it, because it is so true.  I’ve had a wonderful career so far because I have been able to make magic with so many great musicians, and I can’t wait to make more.”

     Life is a gift, and it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters, and Between Rock and a Home Place captures Chuck Leavell’s personal odyssey in a classy, informative way.  As for the music - well, it’s only rock and roll, after all.  But we like it.