Highway 80 is a stretch of road that ran at one time from California all through Georgia and was once part of the early auto trail known as the Dixie Overland Highway.
However, the entire segment west of Dallas, Texas, has been decommissioned in favor of various interstate and state highways. Currently, the highway’s western terminus is on the Dallas–Mesquite, Texas city line. Highway 80’s last stop is Tybee Island, Georgia, just past Savannah.
My focus will be the stretch from Dallas to the other side of Macon, Georgia. I will weave a fictional narrative revolving around nine families and many secondary characters going back to when they first came to America. More specifically, when and how they got to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia. In the process the vicissitudes of American history will be the context for the lives, the successes and losses, of the characters in these stories and songs.
Although the stories and songs are based on real events and typical experiences of the people who settled the southern United States, all the characters and stories are fictional.
Ransom Raney (1848-1905) was the oldest son born to Lonsom Raney (1828-1923) and was the first child born to the Raney family on their new mountain home in North Georgia after moving from southwestern North Carolina. Originally from Scotland the Raneys were one of many families who were encouraged to move from southern Scotland to northern Ireland, the Ulster region.
These people have been called Scots-Irish and made up a significant number of the immigrants to America in the 17th and 18th centuries. They brought with them much of their way of life, including distilling whiskey in copper stills, with the idea that this was their right, one for which they would not tolerate any infringement from government.
Scots-Irish tended to be impetuous and hotheaded, having been marginalized back in Ulster, they defied any easy definition. In fact, they bristled at others’ labels for them—”Irish,” “Irish Presbyterians,” “Northern Irish,” or even “Wild Irish.” Already twice transplanted, they had acquired a migratory habit. Once acquired, such habits are liable to persist; when the constraints of government caught up with them, these wayfarers often chose to move on.
This trait did not evaporate once they were in America and often they would keep moving west, keeping just ahead of civilization and legal constraints on their way of life.
This song is about three things: 1) the resilient nature of the Scots-Irish of the Appalachian mountains, 2) making whiskey and in general living off the land, and 3) fighting to preserve their independence, but being loyal to their way of life instead of any abstract sense of patriotism.
Ransom Raney WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE
This is the tale of a mountain man
Lot of grit, lot of sand
Ransom Raney his name
From Scotland his people came
He was Lonsom Raney’s oldest son
1848 he was born
Stood at his daddy’s right hand
Taught to be a mountain man
Keep your mouth shut, your head down
Live off what comes from the ground
Make your shine, dig ginseng root
Live your own truth
When he was fifteen he went to war
Butternut was what he wore
Fought for what he could understand
Get the blue basterds off his land
Chickamauga; Second Vicksburg
Mansfield was the call he heard
But Ransom slipped away
From the fighting of the blue and grey
His year was up so he went back home
Grateful to get through it whole
In the winter of ’64
Ransom Raney was done with war
Back at the farm what he found
It had been burned to the ground
His daddy rebuilt the barn
While the ground was still warm
Lonsom had buried his copper still
Set it back up on same hill
The first batch after the war
Was his best he swore
The Raneys are a real hard bunch
Won’t be stopped, not by much
A war ain’t nearly enough
The Raneys are a hard bunch
Ransom Raney loved one wife
She gave his seven children life
He taught his two eldest sons
To do what their grandpa done
He lived long enough to see
A brand new century
He was satisfied
In 1905 he died
Ransom Raney stood alone
But he could be counted on
When you needed a friend
Against flatlanders or gov’mint men
Jake McLemore’s father, Charlie McLemore, was mid-level executive at the J.M. Guffey Petroleum Company of Oil City, Louisiana where Jake was born in 1959 and where he spent his early life. Charlie moved the family to Shreveport in 1968 after he got a job at United Gas Corporation. Shreveport would be Jake’s home until he graduated high school, and went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Jake decided to stay in Nashville after graduating from Vandy with a degree in Business Administration. After investing in several businesses, he came to own a bar, which he had won in a poker game. He promptly changed the name and settled down as proprietor of McLemore’s Bar in 1985 (see song, “McLemore’s“).
By that time Jake had already married and had a son, Lee, in 1983. But Jake’s happiness and home were shattered when his wife, Amelia, was killed in a car accident when a drunk driver ran a red light, leaving Jake to raise his son alone. Soon after graduating from high school, Lee McLemore enlisted in the army and was deployed to Iraq.
But before he left for Iraq, in July 2003, Lee’s girlfriend Ellen Brewer gave birth to a son whom they named Charles after his grandfather Charlie McLemore. Lee and Ellen secretly married shortly before Lee shipped out for Iraq that December. Jake knew nothing of this son and lost touch with Ellen Brewer. It was only much later that, largely out of curiosity, Charles looked Jake up and established contact.
On March 31, 2004, five U.S. soldiers were killed by a large IED on a road a few miles outside of Fallujah, one of the soldiers who died that day was Lee McLemore.
Jake kept the bar going for several years after Lee died but ended up selling it in 2007 and bought some land outside of Shreveport, Louisiana not far from Oil City. He had fond memories of fishing on Caddo Lake with his father and settled into that kind of life again.
It didn’t take long for Jake to become bored with retirement, and he bought a diner in Shreveport where Pearl Robison happened to enter one day in January 2010 (see song, “Pearl + Jake“). For five years Jake and Pearl had a turbulent romantic relationship, before Pearl took to the road again (see song “Hit the Road“), heading west on U.S. 80, leaving Jake heartbroken at 56 (see songs, “The River and Jake” and “The Red River Flows“).
Unbeknownst to him Pearl was pregnant when she left, and gave birth to a daughter, Sadie Jo Robison. Pearl initially had no intention of letting Jake know about this child, but she eventually did tell Jake (see song “Terrell“), however, nearly two years after she had left Shreveport. Jake immediately proposed to Pearl, and they got married and moved back to Shreveport to raise Sadie Jo together.
Sadie Jo WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE
Sadie Jo, I love you so
For the rest of my days, I’ll keep you safe,
Watching you grow
Your mama, Pearl, and my baby girl
Everything is brand new since you
Entered my world
Lost my first wife
To a damn drunk
He blew through a light
In a rusted out truck
I lost my son
In a pointless war
What your mama done, she gave me a someone
To love once more
Sadie Jo, I love you so …
I’m a tough old cob
To be a new daddy now
Wanna do a better job
This time around
A new baby and wife
Were not in my plans
I thank God every night for blessing my life
With this second chance
The stories of Jake McLemore and Pearl Robison are told in a group of songs that describe their lives before and after they meet and then their relationship together.
Jake is introduced with the song “McLemore’s“, which tells about his bar in Nashville and describes his character as seen through the eyes of young man. At the end of the song, Jake has sold his bar and moved outside Shreveport, Louisiana.
The song “Between Here and Gone” is our first exposure to Pearl, when she is in Macon, Georgia, contemplating leaving a dead end job. She travels west on Highway 80 to Shreveport where she stops at an all night diner and Jake McLemore enters her life (see song, “Pearl and Jake“) .
They live together for five years before Pearl chooses to leave when their relationship stagnates. She heads further west on 80, this time heading for Fort Worth to camp out with with her sister while she attempts to get back on her feet (see song “Hit the Road“).
When she leaves Shreveport, Pearl is not yet aware that she is carrying Jake’s baby, but while she is living with her sister it soon becomes obvious. She ends up getting her own place and prepares for the baby’s arrival, but chooses not to inform Jake immediately.
Pearl gives birth in 2015 to a baby girl whom she names Sadie Jo, after her parents, Jason Jones Robison and Sadie Boone. About two years after leaving Shreveport Pearl calls Jake and, in her first contact since she left, tells him he is a new father.
Pearl and Jake get married in 2018 and raise Sadie Jo McLemore together.
Terrell WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE
All Pearl knew, she was heading to Texas
When she packed up and left Shreveport
She didn’t know then she was pregnant
When she landed on her sister’s porch
Six months later, Myrna asked if she’d thought about
How she planned on raising this baby alone
Her brother-in-law said it was time for her to move out
Pearl needed a place of her own
Where Pearl calls home
Where Pearl lives alone
Year later, Pearl was working at the Donut Hole
Which made her think of Jake
Sadie Jo’s his, he deserves to know
Not telling him was a mistake
That weekend Pearl prayed for the courage
And help to find the right words to say
Knowing Jake, he might speak of marriage
And Pearl just might say okay
Molly Motts was born in Delta, Louisiana, a tiny hamlet at the Louisiana-Mississippi border, just across the river from Vicksburg. Because of a difficult home life, she often dreamed of getting out of Delta. Vicksburg just across the river looked like a dream garden to her and she thought she’d do anything to get there. She did: marrying Vernon Raney, bootlegger, more than twice her age; but a good husband to her (see song, “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney“) .
They had three children, Lonnie, Ronnie and Ginny. Molly was an ambitious girl and decided early on to piggy-back a drug distribution business onto Vernon’s already prospering bootlegging enterprise (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).
Despite the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many states continued to outlaw alcohol for several more decades. But bootleg whiskey began going out of style in the mid-‘60s, by which time liquor by the drink had become legal in most states, and there was less and less demand for moonshine except out of nostalgia. Transitioning, first, to marijuana and then harder drugs, seemed to make good business sense to Molly.
Molly got her oldest son, Lonnie elected sheriff as a way to offer protection to her and her second son, Ronnie, as they operating the drug business with little interference from law enforcement. This they did and quickly established a lucrative distribution network of dealers from Natchez to Memphis (see song, “Louanne in Vicksburg“).
Molly lived to see both of her sons die violent deaths: Ronnie was murdered by his wife, Louanne Bowden, and Lonnie was killed in a stand-off with U.S. Marshalls and DEA agents. As the drug network wound down, Molly grew into her role as grandmother to Ginny’s children, living a quiet life in Vicksburg.
The second summer after they were married, Vernon built Molly a small cabin in the north Georgia mountains, on a section of the old Raney homestead (see song “Lonsom Raney 1828“). Molly would often go there as a retreat. This song describes her last visit there, when she looks back on her life and contemplates the impact on her family of the choices she has made.
Molly on the Mountain WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE
Molly was at her cabin on the mountain
Thinking ‘bout her life, and all she’d done
A jelly glass of Vernon’s tobacco whiskey
Sparkled in the late October sun
She thought back to the day she married Vernon Raney
Not yet 21, June of ‘58
Three months pregnant, walking down the aisle
To a man more than twice her age
Molly on the mountain, don’t wanna come down
Molly on the mountain, don’t wanna be found
Molly on the mountain, gonna leave it all behind
Molly on the mountain, knows it’s time
The cabin had a chill, she built a fire
With the last of the wood Lonnie’d split
Lonnie’s gone, his brother Ronnie too
Molly blamed herself for all of it
She’d grown harder through the years from that life
Harder, than she could describe
The pot and drugs, the men she fought, some she killed
All she’d ever done was survive
Molly on the mountain …
Ginny was the one who turned out okay
Molly sure loves those three grandkids
She made sure to keep Ginny away from it all
That’s one good thing that she did
Lonnie’s Donald and Vern, went to East Mississippi
Took off when things got hot in Vicksburg
They’re selling pills and meth to the kids at Starkville
That’s what they learned from her
Molly on the mountain …
Molly’s great grandma, Mamie, was a conjure woman
She knew plants for curing or killing dead
Mamie passed it down to Molly’s grandpa Motts
That’s where Molly got it, was what they said
Molly pressed the jelly glass against her cheek
It was time to drink that whiskey down
She looked into the woods, found that old maple tree
Watched a yellow leaf drift to the ground
The lineage of Crawford Harper and the Donald and Vern Raney, is a little complicated. They were distantly related to each other, although they did not know it at the time of the events described in this song. In order to set the stage we have to go back to Alabama, before the Civil war.
Celsie Crawford Monroe (1844-1936) was born into slavery but was freed by Will Monroe, her father, a wealthy white planter, in 1863 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Celsie’s mother, Jessie Crawford (1828-1905), was a slave from a neighboring plantation of whom Will Monroe had grown quite fond. Monroe made sure Jessie was provided for and also insisted that she be freed in 1863 by paying off her owner Carson Crawford.
Celsie was what was called a “yellow gal”, and quite beautiful. Once she was freed at age 19, Celsie began seeing a white man, Joshua Tate (1828-1867), and their relationship developed into a common law marriage, although the possibility of such a union being recognized was not possible at the time. They had one child, a son, Tullison Tate, “Monroe’s Tully” (see song “King Cotton“).
In 1872 Celsie’s first actual marriage was to a African-American man, Jesse Harper (1850-1922), and Celsie and Jesse enjoyed a long and happy union, raising four children, seven grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. However, Celsie’s oldest child, Tully, was raised by his spinster Aunt Ruth, his father’s sister.
Donald and Vernon Raney were distant descendants of Tully Tate, his daughter marrying Virgil Raney, whose son Vernon was Donald and Vernon’s grandfather. Their father Lonnie Raney, had been a crooked Warren County sheriff, who was killed in a shootout with U.S. Marshalls, during a drug raid. The Raneys were descendants of Lonsom Raney, longtime moonshiner in North Georgia (see song “Lonsom Raney 1828“).
Lonnie’s generation of Raneys had become major players in the drug trade stretching from Memphis to Natchez, with Lonnie’s mother Molly Motts Raney acting as matriarch of the family drug enterprise (see songs “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney” and “Louanne in Vicksburg“). Donald and Vernon were Molly’s grandchildren, who were trying to carry on the family business, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Meridian, Mississippi.
One of Celsie Monroe’s great-grandchildren, William Crawford Harper (1942-2001), had marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 (see song “Crossin’ the Edmund Pettus Bridge“). Crawford Harper was Willie’s grandson, and this song describes the events of Crawford’s first summer home from college, when he visited his grandpa in Meridian, Mississippi.
Meridian WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE
Crawford Harper was in Starkville
He’d be the first in the Harper family
Who might graduate
His Grandpa Willie lived in Meridian
Crawford spent the summer, wanting to earn
He’d heard about two fellas with a business
That’s how Crawford met Donald and Vern
The Raneys were from North Georgia
Moonshiners back in the hills
When they came down off that mountain
They were selling pot and pills
When Crawford met up with the Raneys
Vern gave him a duffle bag full of meth
Told him how much money to deliver
Crawford could keep the rest
One night Grandpa Willie found his stash
Asked him, “where’d you get this money?”
Crawford said, “don’t worry, old man,
I got it working for somebody”
Willie Harper had marched at Selma
Five miles from the same plantation
Where his ancestor had been a slave
Going back six generations
Willie asked, if that somebody
Might be named Donald and Vern
Crawford grabbed his duffel bag
Told him, “it ain’t none of your concern”
But see, Willie’d had a visit
From the Raneys late one night
Crawford owed them money
That had to be made right
Willie Harper was a welder
Vern said, “you’re gonna have a partner”
Willie looked at him with stone cold eyes
Said, “only name on that sign is Harper”
Under his welding gloves
Willie kept his service forty-five
He told Vern, “if you think I won’t use it,
You’re in for a surprise”
When Crawford came home, his grandpa told him
“The Raneys won’t be ‘round no more”
He took that duffel bag and torched it
Into a pile of ashes on the floor
Crawford Harper was back in Starkville
He was the first in the Harper family
In 1973 Pearl Robison was born in Conyers, Georgia but we first meet Pearl when she is managing a dollar store in Macon. One January day in 2010, sitting in her car before opening up, she decides to leave town and head west on U.S. 80 (see song, “Between Here and Gone“).
She ends up in Shreveport, Louisiana, when she stops at an all night diner and Jake McLemore enters her life. They live together for five years before Pearl’s wanderlust overtakes her again and she leaves, this time heading for Fort Worth (see song, “Pearl + Jake“). She does not know at the time that she is pregnant, but when she discovers this fact, she choose to not tell Jake that he is going to be a father.
She gives birth in 2015 to a baby girl whom she names Sadie Jones Robison, after her parents, Jason Jones Robison and Sadie Boone.
Hit the Road WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE
Last five years been a good run
She hates to see it end like this
She can tell it’s coming undone
Can’t say just why that is
It’s the longest she’s stayed in one place
This leaving feeling is one she knows
She don’t want to see the hurt on his face
Best thing for her to do is just go
Gonna hit the road
It’s what she knows
When her back’s against the wall she goes
Gonna pack it in
When that old feeling grows
It’s time to hit the road
Got a sister in Fort Worth
Been years since she’d seen her mama and them
‘Bout three hours from Shreveport
She sure hates to run from him
Rosalie Broussard found her self pregnant a week after turning sixteen (see song “Jenny or James“). Though her boyfriend wanted her to have an abortion, and even offered her the money, she refused, because Rosalie had a naive understanding about what having a baby really meant, and also because she just didn’t like the idea. However, she eventually realized she couldn’t handle the responsibility and when James was three she handed him over to her father and his second wife, MaeAnn.
When Rosalie was twenty she left Vivian, Louisiana and married Tully Tate, a man she met while waitressing at a truck stop. They had twin girls and lived in Mobile, Alabama. But Rosalie never could make peace with domestic life and would run off from time to time, ech time Tully would find and bring her back home (see song “What Tully’s Done“). But eventually he grew tired of chasing after his runaway wife and Rosalie finally left that family as well (see song “Rosalie“).
Mike and MaeAnn dearly loved James since they saw that his mother had not shown him the natural love of a mother. But James still felt an emptiness which was only relieved when he played catch with his grandpa.
James WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE
James was Wednesday’s child, full of woe
His mama left when he was just three years old
Rosalie was only sixteen when she had him
Left him with her parents; he was raised by them
James grew up wondering if he’d done something wrong
That made his mama leave him at his grandpa’s home
His father was a shadow, a name that wasn’t said
But Mike and MaeAnn did their best
When James played catch with Mike
For a little while everything seemed alright
A peaceful feeling settled in with the dimming light
On those summer days when James played catch with Mike
He overheard bits and pieces about his mama’s life
She was living in Mobile, a truck driver’s wife
At Christmas she might visit but wouldn’t stay too long
Gave James some toy he’d long ago outgrown
MaeAnn said he had twin sisters in Mobile
James really hoped that they had a better deal
But soon Rosalie would run off from them too
It seemed that’s all his mama was cut out to do
When James played catch with Mike
For a little while everything seemed alright
A peaceful feeling settled in with the dimming light
On those summer days when James played catch with Mike