Clara Sprague Robison (1911-1993)

Clara Sprague Robison was born in the mountains of north Georgia, in early 1911.  Her father was a sustenance farmer but after a series of deaths from influenza in the early 1920s, first her younger brother then her father, the family fell on hard times. Eventually, a fellow from off the mountain heard about their situation and stopped by their farm one day on his way back after delivering a piece of furniture to offer this help.  This was Johnny Campbell, a local carpenter and general handyman who lived in the valley.

There was an attraction felt immediately between Clara and Johnny but they did nothing to act on what they both felt, initially somewhat scared of the power of the emotions.  It wasn’t until he came to her mountain church, a not insignificant journey, did Clara allow her feelings to grow into love (see song “A River Running Wild“).

Clara and Johnny would soon marry and have three children, Marcus, Nora and Emily before Johnny is killed in WWII.

Clara is the great-grandaunt of Pearl Robison.

“A River Runnin’ Wild”

This story takes place in Conyers, Georgia, early 1933.  Clara Sprague Robison (1911-1993) sees her future husband, Johnny Campbell (1905-1944), at church one Sunday.  Clara had met Johnny before, but only briefly, and she knew he lived off the mountain. The fact that he came to her church as opposed to the one he regularly attended was significant to her, letting her know that he made the trip specifically to see her.  Clara is the great-grandaunt of Pearl Robison. Clara and Johnny would have three children, Marcus, Nora and Emily before Johnny is killed in WWII.

A River Busting Free
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Johnny came to our church that Sunday,
Him on the mountain was a surprise
I’d have to walk right past him
Lord I thought I might die

I seen the look in his eye
Like there was no one but him and me
Something rose up in my heart
Like a river runnin’ wild busting free

Johnny touched his new wool cap
As I hurried past him up the steps
All through the preachin’ I felt his eyes
On the back of my neck

I seen the look in his eye …

Soon as the service was over
Goin’ outside filled me with dread
Johnny took my hand, we started walkin’
I couldn’t tell you a word of what we said

I seen the look in his eye …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Ruby Jones Robison (1955)

Ruby Jones Robison is Pearl Robison’s aunt, on her father’s side. Ruby was also from Conyers, Georgia and for whatever reason, wanted to get as far away as she could. She chose Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas when she went off to school, over 1,100 miles away.

She was a freshman when she met Darrel Haynes, a senior and with his wiry frame, Restitol hat and slow Texas drawl, he swept her off her feet. He was an engineering student and had a job in hand upon graduation at Baker Oil in Midland, Texas.

Ruby just managed to graduate before marrying Darrel in 1977.  An engineer at Baker Oil makes good money, and compared to her upbringing, Ruby felt like she was rich.  They lived in a 3,000 square foot house, to her a mansion, and she drove a Mercedes Benz. They had a good life and were happy for the first few years, but things started to sour when it became obvious that marriage was not enough to keep Darrel from succumbing to the attractions of single women in the local bars.

When Ruby lost their first baby, a little girl, and Darrel’s reaction was crudely insensitive, the next piece of evidence that she found of his cheating pushed Ruby over the edge and out the door. It took some courage for Ruby to walk away from the kind of life she had, but she was made of strong stuff.

She rode a bus the entire 1,000 mile journey back to Conyers, nursing a bottle of bourbon the whole time. By the time she got back home she had pretty much put Darrel behind her. What she grieved over more than anything was the loss of her little girl, whom she named Catherine Jane after her mother and grandmother.

Ruby stayed in Conyers and went to work for an attorney, who later proposed, and remained a close confidant to Pearl. Eventually Ruby told the story of the failure of her first marriage to her sister Ruth Ann Robison long after the fact (see song “Feel Like Dirt“).

 

Lonsom Raney (1828-1923)

Lonsom Raney is the son of Scots-Irish immigrants to this country in the early 18th century.  Originally the family spelled their name “Rainey” but Lonsom chose to drop the “i” and spell his name “Raney”.

The Scots-Irish were transplanted (literally the “Plantation” by King James I in 1608-1609) Scots in Ulster, then Ulster Scots in colonial America, they became known as the Scots-Irish, settling in and often moving on through Pennsylvania, and later Virginia and all through the Appalachian mountains.  The Raineys moved into the North Georgia mountains.

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.

In Colonial America, a whiskey-making tradition came ready-made with the arrival of Scots-Irish settlers from Northern Ireland’s Ulster region, beginning in the 1700s. They brought with them their taste for the drink and an understanding of how to make it.  Lonsom Raney’s grandfather had always made his own whisky back in Scotland, and brought his still with him wherever he moved: first to Ireland then across the ocean to Virginia.

When Lonsom was a child, moonshine doubled as a cough suppressant and sore-throat treatment. To get little ones to tolerate whiskey, adults added something special to the cup: “It was pretty common with everybody in the mountains to put the old-fashioned peppermint-stick candy in it,” says Vernon Raney, Lonsom’s great-great-grandson (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Lonsom claimed to drink corn whiskey nearly every day of his life, often telling anyone in his vicinity, that moonshine was the only thing that kept him alive. He started making it while still a child. “I went to helpin’ my daddy make likker when I wuddn’t but nine years old,” he told Vernon. “My daddy just let me go to the still with him and I watched him and learnt it myself.”

Over the years, the law mostly left the Raneys alone.  But Lonsom wasn’t always lucky.  On at least four occasions, he served time in jail and in prison for violating liquor laws and evading taxes.  But as it turned out, being locked up wasn’t bad for business. “That’s a good place to get customers,” Vernon said of his great-great-granddad’s time behind bars. “He would just take orders and fill them when he got out.”

Lonsom Raney died in 1923 at the age of 95.   He had four descendants who carried on the Raney whisky tradition: Ransom (son), Royal (grandson), Virgil (great-grandson) and Vernon (great-great-grandson).  Vernon would marry Molly Motts, who would later transition their bootlegging business into a drug enterprise.

“Lonsom Raney 1828”

Lonsom Raney 1828
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

1828 Lonsom Raney was born
Had a copper still and made clear corn
His great-granddad brought it from Scotland
Hid it in the hills on this Georgia mountain

Help’d his daddy make likker, Lonsom told
When he wuddn’t but nine years old
They’d load the wagon right at the still
Run that shine all through those hills

Let me be, my sons and me
I’m just doing what I can
Let me be, the boys ‘n’ me
I’m just livin’ off the land

He made it himself when his daddy died
Drank corn whiskey every day of his life
Claimed moonshine was what kept him alive
Lonsom Raney lived to ninety five

Let me be, my sons and me …

Five generations have used that still
From Ransom to Royal, then Virgil
Lonsom died in nineteen twenty-three
Now it’s Vernon’s time with the recipe

Let me be, my sons and me
I’m just doing what I can
Let me be, the boys ‘n’ me
I’m just livin’ off the land
I’m just doing what I can
Lemme be free Mr. Gov’mint man

© 2017 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Vernon Raney (1911-1997)

Vernon was the first Raney to grow to adulthood in Mississippi, the rest of the Raney family settled in north Georgia as early as 1748 when Thomas Rainey, Lonsom’s grandfather was born (Lonsom would later change the spelling, dropping the “i” from the name).

The first Raney, Lonegan, a Scots-Irish immigrant, entered colonial America in 1743 at Virginia as an indentured servant. As soon as he was released from his labor, five years later, he traveled, with his pregnant wife, through the Appalachian mountains eventually settling in the north Georgia mountains.  His first son, Thomas, was born in a small log cabin in December 1748.  The Raney family always made whiskey and in fact the copper bowl still they used was brought to America by Lonegan (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Vernon made one major change in the moonshine, he began to age it in oak barrels, producing a more refined product which he sold to Memphis big shots at a premium price.  Vernon remained a bachelor until the age of 49 when he married Molly Motts, just 23 years old, and pregnant with their first son, Lonsom, or Lonnie as he was known.

gettyimages-109913282Molly Raney was an ambitious young woman, seeing that the bootlegging business was doomed as liquor laws were repealed making it easy to purchase whiskey.  She also realized that the younger generation was interested in marijuana and other recreational drugs.  Her oldest, Lonnie, became the county sheriff, the other son, Ronnie became Maggie’s right hand man in their drug distribution business.  Molly oversaw the entire distribution network as Ronnie handled the day-to-day operations.  They moved large amounts of pot and meth all through Mississippi and Memphis, with Lonnie responsible for insulating the enterprise from law enforcement (see song, “Louanne in Vicksburg“).

Over the decades from 1957 through the ‘70s Vernon became more and more detached from day-to-day reality, turning a blind eye to Molly’s drug business while he continued to make small batches of his whiskey and selling a little but mainly giving it away to a group of his old friends who would gather at his old mountain cabin drinking, playing cards or dominoes; smoking cigars or spitting tobacco juice on pot-bellied stove and telling tall tales (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).

In the spring of 1997, at the age of 85 Vernon Raney died in his sleep after producing the last of his tobacco gold whiskey.

Pearl Robison (1973- )

Pearl Robison comes from a fractured family line going back before the Civil War.  And her life resembles a jagged line.  She is related through her father, Jason Jones Robison (1946- ) to Ruby Robison (1843-1933), who was the sister of Marcus Walsh Robison (1936-1897) Pearl’s great-great-great-grandfather.  Ruby was a prostitute in Shreveport who gave birth to a Civil War soldier’s child, the first Pearl Robison (see songs, “Fannin Street” and “Levi Motts is My Name“).

In 1973 our Pearl was born in Conyers, Georgia but we 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 just 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 Dallas (see song, “Pearl + Jake“).  She does not know at the time that she is pregnant, but when she discovers this fact, she never tells 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.

“Between Here an Gone”

Between Here And Gone
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

No one dreams of bein’ manager at Dollar Town
But life happens, there’s worse around
A stick of spearmint’ll hide whiskey on her breath
Might as well open up she’s out of cigarettes

Snowed eight inches overnight the air is crystal clear
They’ll be buying extra bread and eggs and beer
Just sittin’ and thinkin’ in her car out there alone
She’s stranded between here and gone

She could just drive away free as the breeze
Start over somewhere, just leave
Don’t matter no more what’s right or wrong
She’s stranded between here and gone

Checking her makeup she sees a new grey hair
She don’ know that woman who returns her stare
The day’s first shopper pulls in the parking lot
She still has time for one more shot

There’s nothing in this town for her to stay
She used to find little things that kept that thought away
Like goin’ to the Blue Bonnet for a lemon custard cone
She’s stranded between here and gone

She could just drive away free as the breeze …

© 2017 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Conyers, Georgia

Conyers is the only city in Rockdale County, Georgia. The city is twenty-four miles east of Atlanta. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 15,195.

Between 1816 and 1821, the area known as Rockdale was open for settlement. John Holcomb, a blacksmith, was the first settler in what is now Conyers. He settled where the current Rockdale County Courthouse is located, in the middle of Conyers on Main Street.

Eventually, there was pressure for a railroad to cross Georgia; the railroad was intended to run from Augusta, through neighboring Covington to Marthasville (now known as Atlanta). John Holcomb was against the railroad and refused to sell his land, and threatened to shoot anyone from the railroad who came onto his property.

Dr. W. D. Conyers, a banker from Covington, eventually persuaded John Holcomb into selling his land for $700. Dr. Conyers then sold the land to the Georgia Railroad. What is now Conyers began as a watering post along this line, named after Dr. Conyers. By 1845, the railroad was in full operation. By 1854, nearly 400 residents lived around the watering post, and Conyers was incorporated.

Conyers has been nearly destroyed several times by fire. It is said that it survived Sherman’s March to the Sea thanks to a friend of Sherman’s who lived in the area between Conyers and Covington. The story goes that the houses were spared because Sherman was uncertain where his friend lived.