Chuck Leavell: Back To The Woods: A tribute to the pioneers of blues piano

​If you’re reading this, I’m betting you know who Chuck Leavell is: Ace keyboard man, plays with everyone from the Allman Brothers to thirty or so years and counting with the Rolling Stones, conservationist.

​If you do know, raise your glass and join me in a toast: thank goodness for Chuck Leavell. If you don’t know Leavell’s work, then honey, you’re in for a serious treat. Get yourself a glass of whatever hits your spot and sit yourself down. There’s a CD you need to hear.

​I’ve just finished listening to Back To The Woods, his new solo release, for about the eighth time. My reaction after the eighth listening is identical to my reaction after the first listening: thank goodness for Chuck Leavell.

​I’ll get to the CD itself in a moment, but first a bit of history, and a flat statement: there are not enough ivory ticklers left out there who get barrelhouse, I mean really get it. There may be hundreds, but if there are, they’re not in the public eye. They don’t have the exposure or the established listening audience to keep some of the funkiest, dirtiest, hottest, coolest and most ass-kicking piano ever played alive in this world. Chuck Leavell has both, and a commitment to this exuberant, unique reservoir of music. Under Leavell’s masterly touch on the ivories, the reservoir opens and becomes a river of American music, music that’s staying remembered because of CDs like Back To The Woods.

​I came to barrelhouse and boogie piano through one of the best of those lost greats: Nicky Hopkins. I loved piano, but my exposure to it had been almost completely jazz and Broadway: Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner, George Gershwin, Oscar Levant. Nicky opened a door to an entirely different musical highway; names like Pinetop Perkins, Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis became part of my internal landscape. The music literally took my legs out from under me, and it’s continued to do so ever since. It’s not showing any signs of slowing down, either. The reaction to barrelhouse piano just keeps on keeping on.

​With Back To The Woods, Chuck Leavell has put the music on the table for the 21st century listener. More than that, he’s made the music itself the star of the show; while Leavell has a solid core band (not to mention a few high-powered guests, by way of Keith Richards, Danny Barnes and John Mayer), something extraordinary happens here: you don’t find yourself wondering “oh, is that Keith Richards I’m hearing?” You’re too busy wondering what that happy noise under your ribs is. The music is the star, and that’s precisely as it should be. Every song on Back To The Woods was originally recorded by one of the long-ago greats of the genre, and every musician is there to give the music its due respect and their homage. Listen to Candi Staton nailing the vocal on “The Blues Are All Wrong”, written originally by a now-lost player named Leola Manning, and you’re right there, caught in the song, back in the barrelhouse after a long bad week of working yourself down to nothing.

​This isn’t gospel. It isn’t looking for some higher purpose. This is all about being human, about the way just living can wear you down, about how the people sitting down to those eighty-eight keys at the end of that long bad week can use that piano to tell their story, your story, all our stories.

​I love barrelhouse piano with a passion I don’t really have the words to express properly. All I can really say is what I’ve said before: Thank goodness for Chuck Leavell.

(Evergreen Arts, 2012)

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