The Tree Man shares his roots at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival

The stars of "Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man" share their experiences on life, love, and conservation

photo by Allen Farst

Pianist Chuck Leavell is most notably famous for his musical act, collaborating with some of the most star-studded names of our generation such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Mayer, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Rolling Stones, to name a few.

His musical career, however, is just a fraction of who the man behind the piano truly is. Leavell’s love for the environment, his marriage of 47 years to wife Rose Lane, and life experiences will be uncovered in the new documentary, “Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man,” directed by Allen Farst, which will be shown at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, on October 24 at 5 p.m.

The entire festival will take place virtually this year, with films scheduled to be shown throughout the duration from October 24-31. Festival-goers will experience all the festivities they have been accustomed to in the past from home, including live scheduled Q&A’s from filmmakers, gala and signature screenings, documentary feature presentations, professional competition films, student films and more. Also, the festival will include a “Wonder Woman” forum, featuring women directors, producers, writers and below-the-line talent.

Leavell and his wife Rose Lane have lived in Savannah for the past couple of years. He spoke with Connect to talk about his love for the city and his life’s journey captured in the new documentary.

“Being a tree guy, you know how much I love all those live oaks and the Spanish moss dripping down, the wonderful squares found throughout the city and the parks. We love it there,” Leavell said.

The musician is determined to leave the world a better place than how he found it. Along with being one of the largest names in environmental forestry, the Leavells are two-time Farmers of the Year in Georgia and he has been named as National Tree Farmer of the Year.

“I wish I could say I felt great about the current state of affairs with conservation,” Leavell said. “Everything from global climate change to the fires in California to loss of forests of ours to cattle farming, I could go on and on about it. I think there are a lot of challenges that we all face right now in terms of proper forest management.”

Charlane Plantation

The Leavells manage their own forest at Charlane Plantation located in Twiggs County and have been doing so since 1981. The two inherited the land from Rose Lane’s family and decided to make the Leavell name synonymous with forestry. The idea of the “Tree Man” may very well not have come to fruition for Chuck, without the love and support of his wife Rose Lane.

“My documentarian Allen Farst and I worked on this for over three and a half years. Allen followed me to various parts of the world when I was touring with the Stones, we did shots in Europe, Paris, Scandinavia, and he spent time with us here at Charlene,” Leavell said. “There are three themes to the film, one is, of course, my musical career. One is my career in forestry and the environment. The third one, which to me is the most important, is a love story. My wife Rose Lane and I have been married 47 years now, we have an incredible partnership, an incredible family and Allen captured all three of those things very, very well.”

It takes a strong partnership in order to balance the life of a musician, who is constantly working overseas, with home life back in Georgia, but they have made it work, and at the same time trying to save the world one tree at a time.

“It’s just everything, Rose Lane has supported me, we are partners in life, partners in business, partners in everything. We have two daughters that we are so proud of that are married and each daughter and husband have two children now, so four grandchildren for us. Family is so important to us. Her family goes back generations of tending the land and being good stewards of the land. That’s why we are carrying on that heritage.”

Director Allen Farst first learned about Leavell, not as a documentarian, but as a fellow music-lover.

“I was into music, so I knew who he was, I liked the bands he played with, obviously the Rolling Stones,” Farst said. “I was at a record label at the time, kind of managing this blues-rock guy, and I was recording this record. I mentioned that I would like to amp it up and get a piano on it. A guy I was standing next to at the time was saying, ‘I know a guy,’ and I said, ‘Well who do you know?’ And he was like, ‘Chuck Leavell.’”

Leavell was able to eventually take time out of his busy touring schedule to make the trip out to Memphis, where Farst was at the time, and perform a recording session together with Farst’s artist. The two remained friends throughout the years until one day Chuck, after seeing some of Farst’s impressive previous work, approached him about doing a documentary together.

“I knew Chuck pretty well, obviously I could ace a test now, but at the time I was pretty in tune with his history,” Farst said. “I just knew right out of the gate how I wanted to handle the film, I knew I wanted to call it the ‘Tree Man,’ I knew his background in forestry, and the farm he has out near Macon.”

The conservationist is the portion of Chuck that Farst feels people don’t really know, but even in his role as a musician, who has worked with tons of big names, Farst feels Leavell is underrated.

“He’s so under the radar that a lot of people, unless you’re in the music business, you don’t really realize that about every fifth song on the radio has got Chuck Leavell in it somewhere,” said Farst. “So, I was like, well that will be interesting for people to realize that the ‘Wizard of Oz’ is kind of like Chuck Leavell.”

The man behind the curtain of countless musical acts may not get the same recognition as some of the people he has worked with in the past, but he is highly regarded as a musician and as a person, in the eyes of his fellow musicians. The documentary features interviews from a few of Chuck’s former colleagues and peers, all jumping at the opportunity to sing their praises of the Tree Man.

“Everyone loves Chuck, so everybody literally makes time for me to film them,” Farst said. “That’s why it took me an extra year to film it. It’s like being in Rolling Stone magazine, I got to interview some of the greatest musicians of all-time.”

Unfortunately, the director won’t get to see the audience’s reaction to these interviews and other candid moments throughout the film at The SCAD Savannah Film Festival this year—one of the more rewarding moments in the filmmaking process—but the message of the film hopefully hits home for those attending remotely.

“It’s a human-to-human film, and there’s nothing like seeing a film in a theater,” Farst said. “There’s just a nice environment that you get when you’re in a theater and you get to feel the energy of everyone there, the laughter, the sadness, and the emotional moments. Hopefully people at home can gather around the LCD and watch it together. I think this film is a really good film for people that like music, the environment, and people who have a significant other. What you see in Chuck and Rose Lane, it’s what everyone strives to be, and to see that unfold is quite refreshing.”

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