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Chuck Leavell is best known for being a seminal keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and others. But he's as passionate about the environment as he is about music. / Jessica Brandi Lifland for USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO - The doorway into Studio Trilogy isn't particularly wide, so by all accounts, Chuck Leavell's head shouldn't be able to squeeze through it.

Both as a musician and an environmentalist, Leavell, 61, has reached heights that would swell the craniums of most mortals to blimp proportions. Keyboardist for the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Tree farmer, eco-pal of presidents and co-founder of the website Mother Nature Network.

Yet his ego gets checked at the door.

"I'm just a guy who loves music and loves this planet, and wants to see both thrive long after I'm gone," Leavell says as he settles into a sofa not far from a recording space where Lada Gaga recently hit some high notes.

Leavell is on break from the current Stones tour - interrupted by the March suicide of Mick Jagger's partner, L'Wren Scott - and in town to receive kudos from the think tank Pacific Forest Trust.

"We just got to 7 billion people here," he says. "That means we'll be facing a lot of resource challenges as a human race."

Artists with causes aren't a new tune, but the roots of Leavell's commitment run deep. They were planted during a rural childhood in Alabama and blossomed after his wife, Rose Lane, inherited 1,000 acres of Georgia farmland near Macon not long after the couple married in the early 1970s.

"We were wondering what to do with some of it, and I looked around at the things I loved, like pianos, and, realizing they were made of wood, decided that sustainable forestry was something I wanted to do," he says.

Those efforts led to two books, Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest and Growing a Better America, as well as an appointment as spokesman for Georgia forestry and a friendship with President Jimmy Carter.

Carter recalls an evening some years back when Leavell did a concert to raise money for the American Chestnut Foundation, which was looking to fight a blight attacking those trees.

"A crowd of rich city folks came to the Carter Center one evening to hear Chuck perform and became enthusiastic supporters after they heard his speech," says Carter, whose successful run for the 1976 presidency was supported by Allman Brothers concerts. "I have known Chuck for many years and cherish our friendship."

But of all the high and low roads Leavell has walked, the strangest one yet has led him to an office with the title dot-com founder.

"Never in a million years would I have imagined this, but the opportunity was irresistible," he says. He describes how, in 2009, Atlanta pal and public-relations executive Joel Babbit felt that the duo should create a site dedicated to non-partisan environmental news.

Dubbed "the USA TODAY of sustainability" by Fast Company, Mother Nature Network now attracts 10 million unique visitors a month and boasts a for-profit business plan that has drawn advertisers such as Coca-Cola and AT&T.

"From the start, our mission was to get an audience that went beyond the green movement, that was less strident than some advocacy group sites and easier to use than many government sites," says Leavell, adding that 85% of MNN's content is original and ranges from updates on the genetically modified crop debate to features on nine foods that help with bad breath.

"The environment really doesn't care if you're Republican or Democrat," he says with an ever-present smile. "We're really in this together, and our job at MNN is to help find common-sense solutions to the issues we're all facing."

Leavell has testified more than once before congressional leaders, among whom he's known as a guy who's committed to the land and happens to also play some piano.

"Chuck is an incredible example of a person who really puts his passion, and his time, behind the issues he cares about," says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "He's very gifted at garnering attention for the issues he cares about and communicating why stewardship of our land and water is so important."

Leavell concedes that his green talk is sometimes met with "a lot of head scratching backstage (on tour)," and he doesn't actively try and convert his fellow Stones. "But we're all parents, and we see the writing on the wall."

Ever the Southern gent, Leavell is diplomatic when it comes to his famous friends.

His only comment on Scott's death is a polite nod. He calls Clapton "a consummate musician you just want to play your best for."

Meanwhile, a question about how a deft and lyrical piano player fits into a grinding rock band like the Stones draws a big laugh.

"I'll just say that Keith (Richards) reminds me often that I'm in a guitar-driven band," Leavell says. "But I'm very proud of my 32 years with them. I find my place to play, and then lay back and keep track of how we're arranging the songs."

In fact, if the piano man has another book in the offing, it should be mined from the voluminous notes he's taken over the decades on the various ways in which the Stones have hammered out hits on tour. From his vantage point as unofficial musical director, Leavell has a unique perspective on the vaunted rock band.

"What makes them who they are is, first and foremost, the amazing songwriting," he says. "I mean, how Keith just comes up with those indelible riffs is beyond me."

At that, Leavell sits down at a nearby piano and pounds out the opening notes of Start Me Up and a few other classics, before launching into a full run-through, complete with vocals, of Honky Tonk Woman, whose indelible trills he picked up firsthand from the Stones' original pianist, Ian "Stu" Stewart.

Leavell is just warming up. Next, he fires off his moving solo from the Allmans' 1973 classic Jessica, before closing his eyes and disappearing into an early hit by his personal hero, the late Ray Charles, called Losing Hand. The song is on his latest solo release, Back to the Woods. The CD case is made not from plastic but paper, naturally.

"I suppose for some people, it's weird that this rock piano player is also into forestry, but to me, it's all linked together," says Leavell, putting on a long black overcoat before heading for his flight home. "I was a child of the '60s music scene, and the realization that we all can get together to solve our problems never left me."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Chuck Leavell is happiest around trees or Stones

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