Chuck Leavell's Georgia Shelter - A piano player for the Rolling Stones on his 3,000 acres of trees

Wall Street Journal
August 5, 2014 12:45 PM

Chuck Leavell at his home in Bullard, Ga. Photo: Jeff Herr for The Wall Street Journal

Pianist and author Chuck Leavell, 62, will be touring this fall with the Rolling Stones. He is co-founder of the Mother Nature Network, an online environmental news and information site. He spoke with Marc Myers.

Wood has a funny way of growing on you. When my wife's grandmother passed away in 1981, my wife, Rose Lane, inherited 1,100 acres in Bullard, Ga. After we moved in, Rose Lane and I began purchasing adjacent tracts of land, bringing our total property to 3,000 acres. As far back as the early 1800s, much of the land had been devoted to row crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, and some livestock. Today, we use 70% of the acreage to grow and harvest trees.

I've been playing piano in rock bands like the Allman Brothers since the early 1970s, and since '81 I've toured and recorded with the Rolling Stones. So I've always had a special feeling for wood and how different kinds affect the sounds of musical instruments. Trees and songs have an interesting correlation. Both are built to last, both have external texture and internal patterns, and no two are alike, which is sort of miraculous when you think about it.

But it wasn't until I started researching forestry that I became truly passionate about trees and lumber. Switching from row crops to forestry made sense for us given how much day-to-day care crops and livestock need. Sustainable forestry is a long-term proposition, and you don't need to harvest trees for market until you decide the time is right—all of which made more sense given my busy touring and recording schedule.

On our land, we plant mostly species of Southern yellow pine, including longleaf, loblolly and slash. When Rose Lane acquired the land, I read dozens of books on land-use and forestry, and talked to landowners about sustainable forestry. While on one of my concert tours, I even took a correspondence course sponsored by the Georgia Forestry Association. I also studied forestry basics, long-term management, proscribed burning and how to work the market.

Our home is about an hour and a half southeast of Atlanta. When you reach the road leading to our place, you come to an open field where we've planted sunflowers and grain. Eventually you come to a pole with multidirectional signs to our home and other houses on our property, including the Bullard House, an old Federal-style farmhouse built in the 1830s that we restored in the 1990s.

The main house where Rose Lane and I live dates back to 1870. In addition to our house, we have a lodge, a five-stall horse barn with a loft apartment and art studio, a woodworking shop and four houses occupied by tenants. Our house is about 6,000 square feet. The rooms are fairly rustic and show plenty of wood, including exposed beams at the ceilings and polished pine floors.

Our floors are made of Southern yellow pine that has been kiln-dried to prevent shrinkage over time—a common problem. All of the walls are made of the same pine, with some panels as wide as 20 inches. We wanted to see wood grain on everything. I love the outdoor wood shower that we built off our master bedroom as a second bath. It's shaped like a large "S" that curves around until you're in a round shower area. It's pretty cool to be in a space where you see the sky and feel the air as you shower.

After renovating the Bullard House in '93, we decided to build a 5,500-square-foot guest lodge in the same area. It's a mile's drive from our house and has four guest bedrooms and a large great room where I keep my favorite piano, a Yamaha C7 concert grand. An old barn used to stand on the site, and we saved some of the wood to use in the lodge. Rose Lane is a visual artist, and her studio is in the loft above the stables in the horse barn. She enjoys painting while listening to the horses below.

I recently finished building a woodworking shop, also about a mile from the main house, that is about 1,000 square feet. It has high-end equipment, and I employ several talented woodworkers. We create furniture from the trees that have fallen on the property. Recently a huge red oak died of old age. We took it to a local mill and had it cut into "cookies"—2-inch slices that are heavy, since the tree's diameter was 4 feet. We'll let those cookies dry and season, and then we'll make tabletops to sell.

You're probably wondering why a piano player who makes a good living with his hands risks operating a chain saw or lugging around trees. I protect my hands with gloves, and use caution and common sense. I've also taken my share of safety courses. I just love wood. It's part of who I am now, and the Stones and other artists I work with benefit. My hands are stronger on the keyboard from all the hard work.

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