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ROLLING STONES' keyboardist spends free time on the farm

DRY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) _ Even as Chuck Leavell watches Mick Jagger for cues or listens to Keith Richards' riffs, his mind sometimes drifts from rock 'n' roll to the trees and seedlings on his 2,200-acre farm in central Georgia.

Being part of one of the world's greatest rock bands is just one side of Leavell, who tours with the Rolling Stones but always comes back to Charlane Plantation, eager to get his hands dirty again.

``Part of my job is to really keep a close eye on Mick. They look to me for changes, and to signal to let them know the verse or chorus. There's a point when you're getting into the music and you're feeling it, then you start to coast,'' he says. ``That's when I think, `Geez, I wonder if I got any rain back home,' or `I wonder how the dogs are doing, if the dog had a litter of pups.'

``You can't wait to get back home and ride the horses or get in the truck and drive.''

The tree farm that Leavell shares with his wife, Rose Lane, is more than just a celebrity's pet project.

Leavell is so devoted to forestry and conservation that he has even written a book, ``Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest,'' which is set for release with a companion CD this month.

Leavell didn't know anything about tree farming in 1981, when his wife inherited a 1,200-acre farm in Bullard after her grandmother died. The couple raised their daughters, now 19 and 25, on the farm and Leavell, who was between music gigs, took up a forestry correspondence course.

``We met and married and (the farm) wasn't even part of the equation ... until my grandmother died,'' Rose Lane Leavell says. ``She could have lived to be 95 and Chuck and I would have still been living in Macon and everything would have been totally different. But life is good here.''

Leavell has earned critical acclaim with the Allman Brothers Band, Sea Level, Eric Clapton, the Black Crowes and recently, Gov't Mule. But, when the Stones asked him to audition in 1981, he thought it was a joke.

``It was a bit of a roller coaster ride. I got the word the Rolling Stones were trying to find me ... but I didn't get the gig at first,'' he says. In 1982, the band tapped Leavell for their European tour. He's been their keyboardist ever since.

Eyes glazed over when he first chatted up his rock star bandmates about trees, but over time he helped raise their awareness of conservation issues.

``Chuck is always talking about trees,'' Jagger says. ``But his passion for forestry is undeniable, and he's made some strong contributions to the environment through that passion.''

Driving down a dirt road leading up to the Twiggs County farm, visitors notice rows of pine, dogwood, hickory and oak trees lining the pathway to the Leavell's bayou-style, 1870s farmhouse. Family pictures, some from the early 1900s, fill the walls alongside gold albums, forestry awards and Rose Lane's paintings. Two Jack Russell terriers and a cat named Booker make the home complete. The property also includes a hunting preserve.

``I love to quail hunt. There's something very special for me about the relationship of the dogs, the birds, the outdoors,'' he says. ``As a musician who goes out and works in big cities and plays to large crowds, in clubs or wherever it might be, I cannot tell you the importance of being able to come back here and sink back into nature.''

As a youth, Leavell spent three years on a small farm outside of Montgomery, Ala. ``My memories of that are my sister and I playing in the creeks ... I enjoyed horseback riding, and I remember my father plowing the garden with a horse and a plow. I think somehow that got into my blood.''

Leavell, who was named National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in 1999, has been recognized by the American Forest Foundation, the Georgia Conservancy and the National Arbor Day Foundation. He and his wife are also spokespersons for the Georgia Forestry Association.

The couple met in 1972 while she worked at Capricorn Records in Macon. He had been touring with Dr. John and was working on the Allman Brothers' album, ``Brothers and Sisters.'' They have been married for 28 years.

``Oh, it's a team thing,'' Rose Lane says. ``I guess everybody looks to me for guidance out here since Chuck'll be gone a lot of times.'' With a cookbook in the works, she also paints, manages the hunting cottage and runs their new company, Evergreen Arts.

A typical day, when Leavell isn't touring, usually starts at 5:30 a.m. He's likely to hook up a disc harrow and start clearing fields so he can sprinkle seeds for wildlife feed plots.

The property costs at least $150,000 a year to run, Leavell says. Seven employees help run the farm and hunting preserve.

``I think what we're finding _ those of us private land owners active in growing trees and forestry practices _ are having to find alternative ways of creating income,'' Leavell says. ``When we first started we tried Christmas trees. We grew Christmas trees for about 10 years as a sideline and it was mildly successful.

``But we found that there were better opportunities out there, namely the hunting opportunities.''

``The bottom line is that if you're going to own land like this and manage it, you're going to have to find ways _ unless you got a real strong day job _ you're going to have to find ways to supplement it.''

Leavell has no plans to give up touring or recording, but he will always return to the farm.

``Somehow that farm experience early on in my childhood stayed in my subconscious and was just trying to find a way to resurface,'' he says. ``It's a passion to both of us, an intense passion.''
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