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Rolling Stones Keyboardist Chuck Leavell on his new documentary ’The Tree Man’

Chuck Leavell, Rolling Stones Keyboardist, Musical Director, joined Yahoo Finance to discuss his new documentary ’The Tree Man’, and the outlook for the music industry amid covid-19.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: We want to invite into the stream right now Chuck Leavell, the famous keyboardist and musical director with the Gregg Allman-- with The Allman Brothers Band. There's so much to talk about, but you've got a new documentary out, and it's called "The Tree Man." There are many elements of this. It talks about your relationship with your wife, your work with environmentalists, but also with the band and some of the music. So want to talk with you about all of this.

Let's talk about the song "Jessica" because I mentioned I watched a clip of the documentary, and part of the inspiration that they talk about for that song was a little girl jumping around. Can you tell us more about that?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Yes, absolutely, and wonderful to be with you. Thanks for inviting me on this evening.

So yeah, the story is the song was written by the great guitarist Dickey Betts. And I had joined The Allman Brothers Band, and Dickey had a little daughter at the time named Jessica. She was about two years old, a toddler. And he had been listening to Django Reinhardt. And for any of your viewers that might know who that was, he was a famous gypsy guitarist, and he had a very bouncy style of rhythm guitar.

And so Dickey was listening to Django, watching his daughter play, and he came up with this intro for the song on acoustic guitar that kind of put those elements together. And then later the melody came, and he presented it to the band, and we took it from there.

SEANA SMITH: Chuck, you've been in the music industry for quite some time, and it's really evolved over the last couple of decades. When you look back at your time with the Allman Brothers and then when you were with the Rolling Stones, so what we're seeing right now, how has it evolved and changed over all those years?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Well, it's probably not the first time you've heard this, but once Napster came around and file sharing and then eventually downloading and streaming, that severely cut into the revenue streams of recorded music. Genie's out of the bottle, so it's not going to get back in, and this is the world that we live in now. So therefore the revenue streams are focused more on the live music. And, of course, as we know with COVID, that's been shut down for a time.

You know, other revenue streams that songwriters and artists look to are things like getting your songs in TV shows or in movies, merchandise. If you're a pretty big name like The Rolling Stones, that red tongue does pretty well.

But the recorded music, you know, the-- I forget the exact number, but I think for any given stream of one song, the figure is something like 0.0002 cents per stream. So as you can imagine, that's really not all that great.

ADAM SHAPIRO: It's kind of like advertising on the stream. It's like you get $1 if you're lucky per 1,000. But let me ask you this. Is this correct? You're self-taught , not only piano keyboards but also guitar?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Yes. I don't play guitar so much these days. I wound up working with these fantastic guitar players like Eric Clapton and David Gilmour and Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. But keyboard is the main thing now.

And I am self-taught. I learned from my mom when I was very young. She was not a professional or a teacher, but she played for family enjoyment. I was the baby of the family, and we used to tug on her skirt and ask her to play for me, and that's what got me started.

SEANA SMITH: Chuck, there's something that I don't-- some viewers may not know about you. In addition to all of your accomplishments as a musician, you're also a decorated environmentalist, and that's behind the reason why this documentary-- this film is called "The Tree Man." How-- where did that interest start? How has that evolved? What are you doing now to further that interest?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Well, it's all my wife's fault. Rose Lane and I have been together now some 47 years. But the fact is that her family had been connected to the land for generations as farmers tending livestock, tending forest land, and just being general good stewards of the land.

And so in 1981, she inherited some land from her grandmother, and this responsibility fell on our shoulders. And I took it very seriously and investigated a lot of possibilities for land use. But there was an immediate connection for me with forestry, and that is where does this marvelous instrument that has given me so much joy and a great career come from, and where does most musical instruments, the resource, come from? And that's the resource of wood.

So I took it seriously. I did some studying. I went to the library, checked out books eventually, and rolled in a correspondence course when I was touring with a little Texas band called The Fabulous Thunderbirds. I took about a year to get through that course, and I began to better understand what sustainable forest management is, and that's what we've been doing all these years now.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You're in Georgia. Your farm is in Georgia, correct?

CHUCK LEAVELL: That's right, right in the middle of the state.

ADAM SHAPIRO: I am curious. You can see the documentary was originally in films, but now it's on your website. Tell everybody your website, but then it's also coming video on demand through different platforms, right?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Yes. It's actually still making the theater run right now, and that will go through the end of this month, through the end of November. And then it will go to video on demand. We are hopeful that it will be available as of December 1, and you should see it on those platforms. But right now you can see it through the virtual theater offerings at www.ChuckLeavellTheTreeMan.com.

And let me just, if I may-- you know, we were talking about the title of the film. And at first when my partner and filmmaker Allen Farst brought this theoretical title to me, "The Tree Man," I thought, I don't know, man. You know, I'm more known as a musician. But I sat on it a while, and I thought to myself, you know, that's actually pretty cool because it's kind of like going in the back door. You know, you don't make it so obvious concerning the musical career. And so I liked that title, and I'm glad we stuck with it.

SEANA SMITH: Under the radar a little bit. Chuck, I'd love to get your thoughts just on COVID's impact on the music industry. And we've seen this rise of virtual shows, and artists are opting to do that in order to make some money because, like you're saying, when we're streaming songs, artists just simply are not making nearly what they were 10, 15, 20 years ago. To what extent are these virtual shows able to replace some of the lost revenue from touring?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Well, it's a fraction of it. But, you know, here's the thing. What else do you do? You have to do something, and so I admire these artists that are beginning to better understand these platforms and how to use them.

And I think this is going to go on for a while. I mean, I'm so glad, as we all are, to hear about the great news about these vaccines, but as we know, it's going to take time to get these things distributed and to get people immunized. And are we really going to be ready for big arena shows, big sports events, and stadium shows in the next 8, 10 months? I don't know. I kind of have my doubts about that. So I think we're going to be with this platform for a little bit longer. And I think interestingly that it will mature, and we'll find some ways to improve it.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Who are you listening to right now? Anyone catching your ear that you want to share with us?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Oh man. You know, I'm all over the map. I love listening to great jazz. Some of my favorite players are Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock. You know, I like to dive into the older stuff as well with Coltrane and Miles Davis. But, you know, I'll put on the classic rock and roll every now and then and dance around and reminisce about some of the work that I've been privileged to do and some that folks that I've known have put out through the years.

SEANA SMITH: Chuck, right now when we see what's going on across the nation, we're more divided than it seems like we have ever been or more divided than we've been in quite some time. What role do you think music can play in bringing us together and trying to bridge that gap that we're looking at right now?

CHUCK LEAVELL: I think it's already played a role when you look at some of the songs that have been released trying to heal some of the wounds that our country is feeling now. I think that's a good thing, whether the genre might be country or rock and roll or whatever it might be.

I think music has always served as a healing vessel and that it can help bring people together, and I certainly hope that's going to be the case as we go forward. You're right. This is a pretty strange time for all of us, and I just hope and pray that as we go forward, some of this harshness will dissipate and we'll get back to being Americans everyone.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You know, when you talk about the harshness and then getting back to being Americans everyone, in the documentary it talks about when Jimmy Carter came to one of your recording sessions. Do you stay in touch with President Carter?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Absolutely. As the film shows, back in the early '70s when he was governor, he came to one of our recording sessions. And that began a friendship, and then the Allman Brothers Band supported him financially doing benefits. And this was the early days of when you could get the matching federal funds. And so with the money we raised for him doing these benefits, the federal agencies had to match those funds and really helped his campaign.

As he became president and we remained our friendship, we have spent time through the years. He's given me-- generously given me some quotes for some of the books that I've written. And, you know, he had his 96th birthday October 1, and he's still doing great and one of the most incredible people I've had the privilege of knowing.

SEANA SMITH: Chuck, ahead of this, ahead of COVID, Rolling Stones was preparing for a three-month tour. That, of course, has been cancelled because of the COVID pandemic, but any idea when Rolling Stones is returning to the road again?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Well, I think when it first hit, the hope was let's see if it's possible same time next year. But just as I said earlier, I'm just not sure the world is going to be ready for that. I don't know. Of course, it's really up to the principal members of the band and to the people that they work with in terms of arranging these concerts as to what they think may work, and that will be their decision. But from my personal point of view, I just have my doubts that by spring or maybe even early summer people are going to feel comfortable going into 50,000-seat stadiums all packed and ready to rock and roll, but we'll see.

One of the things that has been going around in the media concerning The Rolling Stones-- it's certainly no secret, and everybody's kind of aware of it at this point-- is that 2022 will mark the band's 60th anniversary. So that is a great way to celebrate it.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Yeah, and Seana wants tickets. So do I. We got it say thank you--

SEANA SMITH: I do.

ADAM SHAPIRO: --so much to Chuck Leavell. The documentary is "The Tree Man."