The White House Correspondents’ Jam Is a Better Party Anyway

Organizer Chuck Leavell gives us the details on this weekend’s headliners.

It’s fair to say Donald Trump was never going to attend the White House Correspondents Jam this coming weekend, but that doesn’t make musical director Chuck Leavell, Rolling Stones keyboardist and musical director, any less excited for the event, which will feature Billy Bob Thornton and his band the Boxmasters, among many others.

Leavell set up the Jam two years ago as part of the many parties and events that make up the eco-system of the annual White House Correspondent’s dinner. It was a “kind of a give back from us to the journalists that come with the bands and play,” says the musician, who moonlights as a tree farmer and founded the Mother Nature Network to highlight environmental issues. (Full disclosure: I will be playing with my band Suspicious Package, which features the Washington Post’s Tom Toles.) Last year’s Jam included REM bass player Mike Mills and John “JB” Bell of Widespread Panic.

He’s excited for this year’s lineup as well. “The talent is somewhat surprising, these folks are quite good and I think it’s wonderful that they have an outlet like this…. I always enjoy on a personal level sitting in with these bands and having a good time.” Not that it will keep him in D.C. for long; he hits the road to sit in with country star Eric Church in Manchester, New Hampshire, that Saturday night. He says he’ll be back for meetings on conservation with any willing policymakers from Ivanka Trump to Sonny Perdue and members of Congress in between. He’s excited that his pilot PBS TV documentary on American forests has been sponsored for a second episode, which will film in Colorado later this year.

While his headliner, Billy Bob Thornton, is reserved about politics, the man through whom Thornton said he met Leavell, who also tickled the ivories for the Allman Brothers, was not. They met around 1989 when producer Phil Walden, Thornton’s agent for a time, hired Thornton to direct a documentary on the band Widespread Panic.

Walden and the Allman Brothers had been early supporters of Jimmy Carter when he won the White House in 1976. “Phil was pretty vocal so whatever his opinion was I’m sure he would have expressed it [today]. He was definitely a Democratic guy, there’s no question about it,” Thornton said in a phone interview, along with longtime Boxmaster J.D. Andrew, before a tour date in Colorado.

Leavell recounted how then-Governor Carter’s visit around 1974 to Walden’s Capricorn Records recording studio in Macon, Georgia, where the Allman Brothers recorded, morphed into the band helping Carter’s winning campaign. “We thought, ‘Eh ok, sure, he probably wants to come for a little photo op and maybe 20 or 30 mins,” but Carter “spent about 2 and half hours with us, he asked great questions and showed sincere interest in the music business throughout the state of Georgia.” A few months later, “we get word that Carter wants to run for President and asked, could we possibly give some assistance in terms of doing some benefits. And immediately we said yes. We did at least two benefits for him and that I think helped his campaign a great deal.”

Leavell said Carter always stayed in touch and just this January hunted quail with Leavell and his wife at the Leavell farm in Georgia. How was Carter’s shooting? “He tells a story that when he was very young, they didn’t have much money and he would go hunting and his Dad would give him something like 6 shells and whatever he could get with that. So he had to be a good shot and believe me he still is.”

Leavell said that while he’s a Democrat, he wants to give Trump a chance. “There’s still a lot of confusion in his administration and they’re still trying to feel their way through,” he said. But he allowed that he’s “very concerned” Trump may “undo some of what President Obama did” on environmental issues. “From what I’ve read, Ivanka seems to have an interest in environmental subject matter and perhaps she can be an influence. I certainly hope she can and perhaps others.”

Such as Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue, another former governor of Georgia. “I feel certain he will be confirmed, and of course the forestry falls under USDA and I can say Governor Perdue was always supportive of forestry issues. I met with him when he was governor several times… Sonny, I think he’s a good man, so I look forward to eventually meeting with him.”

Leavell said he works with both parties and hinted that he had more access in the George W. Bush Administration than under Obama. “I did meet quite often with senators and congressmen during [Obama’s] tenure but I never did quite get in the thick of his Administration. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough.… But bottom line I think he did some great things.”

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