Anyone who doesn't recognize Chuck Leavell's name hasn't read many rock album credits closely. The Georgia keyboardist has backed Dr. John, served as a member of the Allman Brothers Band, co-founded the jazz-rock combo "Sea Level" and, since 1982, toured and recorded with the Rolling Stones. He was also part of Eric Clapton's Grammy Award-winning "Unplugged" and boasts a lengthy résumé of session credits that most recently includes John Mayer's current chart-topper, "Born and Raised." Now Leavell-an environmental activist and tree farmer who co-founded the eco-news service Mother Nature Network-has a new album of his own, "Back to the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano" (Evergreen Arts), that delves into the catalogs of Otis Spann, Leroy Carr, Ray Charles and others, with help from Mayer, Keith Richards and Candi Staton.
Someone looks at your discography and goes, "Wow!" You look at it and say . . . what?
The joy of my career is that I get to work with all of these incredible artists through the years, with Clapton, the Stones, the Allmans, then Sea Level and do session work, whether it's the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Marina McBride, John Mayer . . . It's just been so interesting to work with these varied and diverse artists. You always learn something that you can apply to another situation.
There's almost a scholarly approach to Back to the Woods. How did the album come about?
Well, you're right. Our son-in-law, [co-producer] Steve Bransford, is a PhD graduate from Emory University in Atlanta, studying American history with a slant on roots music. How cool is that? Steve came to me with this idea, saying, "There's been lots of tributes for blues guitar players and singer/songwriters and the jazz idiom and so forth, but, to my knowledge, no one has paid homage to the real blues piano players of the world." I thought, "That sounds interesting," and then, "Hey, I'm the guy to do it. If not me, who?"
It's a big territory. How did you hone it down to 15 songs?
[Bransford] handed me three CDs with about 150 songs on them, and I just started driving around in my truck, listening to all the tunes. I was familiar with a lot of them, but Steve turned me on to obscure stuff like the title cut, by a guy named Charlie Spand. I began to pick out the ones that would be fun to play, and those I thought I could do justice. That was the process. There's so much of this great music. I'm sure we'll do another album at some point.
Do you feel you have a curatorial role-a responsibility to get this music out there?
Absolutely. I owe a lot to every one of these players, and those who came after them-Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, even the boogie guys like Pinetop Perkins and Albert Ammons. I feel really good that we've shed some light on largely unknown names. I've already had comments from people saying, "Wow, I never knew about so-and-so." It's a good feeling bringing this music to light.
Going back to your "day job," do you have to worry about buying 50th-anniversary presents for each one of the Stones?
[Laughs] I'm still waiting to hear what may or may not occur [regarding a new album and a tour]. It's also my 30th anniversary with the Stones, so that's a biggie for me. I feel like it would be a tragedy if the 50th anniversary goes by without some kind of activity. My gut feeling is something will happen, but only four people can pull that trigger: the four Rolling Stones. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, and hoping the phone rings.
It's also been 35 years since the release of the first "Sea Level" album. Any plans to commemorate that event?
"Sea Level" has been long gone. Through the years, some people ask if we'd ever put it back together, but, honestly, there are just too many complications. Jimmy Nails, God bless him, is fighting Parkinson's disease. I remain close with Randall Bramblett and Davis Causey-we do a lot of shows these days, but we do them under our own names. I'm really focused on my own solo career, rather than a band like Sea Level.