A Hunter at Heart
Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell makes his home on a magnificent hunting plantation outside of Macon, Georgia. And you're invited to stop by for a visit
The rattlesnake- a big, fat four- or five-footer—is coiled and ready to strike. Black diamonds run down its back, its midsection fat from a previous meal.
Luckily, the rattler is also stuffed and displayed on a table near the entertainment area at the Lodge: a four-bedroom guesthouse at Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell’s hunting and tree-farming plantation, Charlane, about twenty miles southeast of Macon, Georgia.
“That guy’s been all around the world,” Leavell is saying. He reaches out and strokes the snake’s grayish-brown skull, its scales shining like delicate beadwork. “On every Stones tour, there’s a private backstage area for the band to hang out, and that area always has a nickname. On this last world tour, it was called the Rattlesnake Inn, and this fella was our mascot. Every city we went to, he went to. He traveled the planet, and now he’s back home here in Georgia.”
The same can be said for Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell. Chuck is a solo recording artist, as well as the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones since the 1980s (and the Allman Brothers Band before that). Roughly every two years, Leavell and his wife are called on to leave their beloved 2,200-acre Charlane for another eighteen-month Stones global circus: a chartered-jet and hotel-room existence precisely the opposite of their peaceful, synced-to-nature life in Georgia.
Charlane has everything: the comfortably sprawling plantation house that Rose Lane’s grandparents once occupied—now upgraded with Wi-Fi, a magnificent cook’s kitchen, and ambient stereo—plus top-drawer accommodations in outlying buildings for sporting guests, all surrounded by an enormous network of tended forests, ponds, and meadows linked by sandy two-tracks.
Is it hard to leave Charlane for tours? After all, it’s…just about perfect.
Leavell smiles. He walks past the Lodge’s sturdy bar and enormous flat-screen TV and takes a seat at the Yamaha C7 grand piano nearby. “Well, sure, we love being home,” he says. He grins again. “But, hey, going on tour with the Rolling Stones isn’t exactly a bad time.”
Then he launches into a solo-piano version of “Honky Tonk Women” that’d knock your hunting socks off.
Into the Wild
Twenty-eight years ago, if you had told Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell what they’d be doing today, “I’d have said you were crazy,” Leavell says.
Back then, they were living prosperously in Macon. Rose Lane owned Cornucopia, a successful women’s boutique, and Chuck was busy inside the music industry. They’d already had one daughter, and a second was on the way. Then, in 1981, Rose Lane’s grandmother—Miss Julia—died, and part of Rose Lane’s inheritance was the 1,200 acres of forest that became Charlane Plantation (christened by mashing Chuck and Rose Lane’s first names together).
Rose Lane, having grown up in the country, found the transition easy. It was less so for Chuck, but he quickly took up the challenge. “When we moved out here,” he says, “I knew nothing about trees. But my brother-in-law, Alton, had also inherited land nearby. He started showing me the value of forests. And I started studying. I went to school. I took my first forestry correspondence course while on tour with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I studied between shows, in the back of the bus.”
Since then, the Leavells have added another one thousand acres to Charlane, and the forests and habitat have been lovingly tweaked. Both are now rich with husbanded trees, deer, dove, quail, turkeys, and wildlife of all stripes. Both daughters are now grown—one owns a skin-care line in Atlanta, and the other is studying dentistry in Boston. Charlane is the Leavells’ third source of pride. It is such a model of integrated forest management, in fact, that the Leavells were named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999. Chuck is a trustee and national spokesperson for several state and national tree-farming organizations (including the American Forest Foundation and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities). He also works closely with the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources. Because of all these associations, Leavell travels somewhere virtually every week to speak to universities and trade groups about enlightened forest management.
“I’ve come to see forests as man’s most valuable asset,” he says. “Trees provide building materials and energy sources. They recycle CO2. They’re enormous carbon-offset sinks for pollutants. They provide cooling shade and habitat…they make musical instruments. Right now, we’re working on ways to convert pine needles into bioenergy. Like I say, trees are the best friends mankind has.”
During hunting season at Charlane, the managed forest is also the best friend a sportsman can imagine. Hunters are transported around the property in fully restored—and shiny green—Willys Jeeps, pursuing dove in a broad field of mixed corn, sunflowers, and strips of planted wheat, rye, and millet. Later in the season, across open fields with ample coveys, they hunt quail behind Charlane’s expertly trained pointers, and turkeys in deeper timber and at sandy road intersections. Deer can be taken from stands placed along forest edges for maximum visibility.
Hunting season nights are spent in five-star comfort at the Lodge and the 1835 Rose Lane Bullard House, a period farmhouse complete with broad verandas just a few steps away. Hunting guides and a chef further enrich the experience. In a nod to the local terroir, almost all the lumber used to make the Lodge (and repair the Bullard House) was grown on the property, while the fresh vegetables and honey fed to guests often come out of Rose Lane’s gardens. “I’m a real Proverbs 31 woman that way,” she says by way of explanation, a sly smile crossing her face. “If readers are curious about what Proverbs 31 is, well, I hope they’ll look it up.”
While Leavell's busy schedule of speaking and touring keeps him running, he still manages to spend “oh, about 60 percent of my time on the plantation.”
Which is good, since, over the next year, working with several prominent partners, he’s also rolling out an online site that’s less a typical eco–sales pitch than an unbiased source of information. It’s called mothernaturenetwork.net, and he and his partners hope it will do for conservation what WebMD has recently done for medicine.
Still, despite all these disparate projects, the Leavells have carved out a life that suits them just fine. As evening comes, before another leisurely supper out of Charlane’s gardens begins, Rose Lane and Chuck often find themselves on the porch, relaxing with a cool drink, their border collies circling as several of the barn’s cats pad over for a visit. There they spend an hour talking, listening to the house’s constant feed of blues, rock, and soul, and watching wildlife move across the broad lawn.
Then, after supper, Chuck may sit down at the piano—a glass of Malbec within reach for inspiration—and knock out a few tunes, “just to keep my skills up.” He might open with familiar titles from some of the artists he’s played alongside, but with a little appreciation, he’ll get rocking on his own stuff, especially selections off his stupendous Southscape album.
Don’t worry: You’ll know these songs when you hear them. Composed and written at Charlane, they sound the way the plantation’s fresh veggies taste and the timbered buildings feel. It’s the unmistakable sound of people who, for a while, have left the big-time pressures of the Rattlesnake Inn behind and are just plain happy to be home.