“Nathaniel Knox was an Ulster Man”

Matthew Knox was the first of his family to cross the mountains and enter Mississippi. The covered wagon he drove pulled a milk cow while two sows and a collie dog trailed along, and his wife sat in the back. Under the tarpaulin, among the farm implements, resting neatly next to a jug of clear whiskey medicine, was a small bible his grandfather, Jeremiah Knox, had given him in 1862 when he went off to fight in the Confederate War. Together Matthew and this bible had survived the war and would stay together throughout the tense aftermath.

This song tells the history of how Matthew’s Scots-Irish family came to America from Ulster, carrying with them the generations of Knox forebears as documented in the family bible.

Nathaniel Knox was an Ulster Man
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Nathaniel Knox was an Ulster man
A staunch Presbyterian
Sold his labor for a six week voyage
With a wife and two small boys

Traced his line to 1621
To his great-great-grandad Tristan
They came to Ulster from County Galloway
Nathaniel Knox sailed away

It was a small thing that he took
A list of names in a holy book
Every Knox that’ll come along
Will write more names of his own

Nathaniel Knox went to Carolina
Took his grandson Jeremiah
Who was the first Knox American-born
In seventeen seventy-four

It was a small thing that he took
A list of names in a holy book
Every Knox that’ll come along
Will write more names of his own

It ain’t rained for six weeks now
Jeremiah watched his fields turn brown
One minute he’s cooking molasses from sugar cane
Then everything he’s built goes up flames

Matthew Knox was Jeremiah’s grandson
He left Carolina for Meridian
Mississippi soil is rich and dark
Matthew Knox has an Ulster heart

It was a small thing that he took
A list of names in a holy book
Every Knox that’ll come along
Will write more names of his own

© 2020 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Miss Lucy Keith”

During the latter half of the 19th century shaped note singing became very popular.  Singing schools were found all though the South, and singing conventions would be held for three days at a time, or even as long as a week.  These events were part of what has been called The Great Awakening in which revivals or camp meetings were held where, along with the preaching, much singing would take place.

This song is about the great-great-grandparents of Lucy Cooper (1980-2015), Cowan “Dusty” Cooper (1843-1925) and Lucy Calhoun Keith (1859-1919).  They were an unlikely match since Cowan was a ne’er-do-well and more than 15 years older, while Miss Lucy Keith was a dignified young lady, the heir to her father’s banking fortune.  But they happened to meet at an opportune moment.

Because Lucy was a somewhat intimidating lady, suitors had never succeeded in winning her hand, and by now seven years had elapsed since she had attained marriageable age.  At the same time, it was 1885, Cowan Cooper had become dissatisfied with his life as an itinerant gambler and con-man and was ripe for change.

After becoming aware of Miss Lucy Keith, and seeing that she was strikingly beautiful, and destined to become rich, Cowan began to make himself available wherever she might be, including one of these camp meetings. Although at first his motives might not have been exactly honorable, that changed rather quickly.

They officially met at a group singing event held by the river in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  As he joined in the singing, Cowan felt himself being born again and from then on he and Lucy Keith began courting seriously. Cowan grew into a proper gentleman and eventually met with the approval of Old Man Keith, who took him on at the bank.

Cowan and Lucy married, raised three children, and lived happily together for 32 years.

Miss Lucy Keith
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

I buried Lucy yesterday
After thirty-two years together
But I am getting ahead of myself
I mean to tell you how I met her

My name is Cowan Cooper
Been a grifter my whole life
I was making a pretty good living
With cards and dice

I come from Jackson, Mississippi
Born in 1843
But I cared nothing about
Preserving the Union or slavery

While other boys fought and died
I bought myself out of the war
Dealt poker in a Vicksburg saloon
And lived with a whore

I met Lucy in 1885
By then the war was twenty years gone
I was tired of the gambler’s life
But it’s all I’d ever known

Miss Lucy Keith was the talk of Vicksburg
Her flashing green eyes and long red hair
They said she can look right through you
Made you feel like you weren’t even there

I was intrigued by this young lady
And would appear wherever she went
Until one night I found myself
At a camp meeting, under a tent

Now I was raised up in the church
But learned more songs in less sacred places
There was a feeling in that tent
A light radiated from all the faces

I sat down next to Miss Lucy Keith
She kindly indicated to me the hymn
We shared a Sacred Harp
Leaned in close and sang “Jerusalem”

I can’t explain what came over me
The singing mixed with Miss Lucy Keith’s perfume
From the fragile scent of lilac
I felt myself rising up in the room

In the weeks after that night
I was often seen with Miss Lucy Keith
My former friends couldn’t understand
And stared at me with disbelief

I threw away my cards and dice
Having no use anymore for them
A wretch such as I had been saved
When Lucy Keith and I sang “Jerusalem”

So now you’ve heard my story
And it’s all I have to tell
I walked away that old hymn book
Somewhere, it’s sitting on my shelf

Those shaped notes may be old-fashioned
I hope there’s still some power left in them
Save your old Sacred Harps
My life was changed when I sang “Jerusalem”

© 2020 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Robert Dodge”

Of the approximately twelve million Africans brought to the Americas, as few as 350,000 came directly to the territories that would become the United States.  Virtually all of those slaves were brought to the East Coast, primarily to Virginia and the Carolinas.  Among them were the ancestors of Winnie Mason (1845-1930) and Charles Dodge (1841-1912), whose ancestors had been given their freedom prior to the Civil War.  Charles and Winnie moved from Virginia to Mississippi as free persons of color.

Winnie had given birth to nine children, but only five survived to adulthood.  Robert Dodge (1884-1932) was the youngest and last to leave home.  The events of this song took place roughly from 1880 to 1920.

Free blacks in the South were not uncommon.  In 1810, there had been over 100,000 free black persons there, and by 1860 more free blacks lived in the South (261,918) than in the North (226,152).  Forty percent were mulattoes, and for the most part they had been released from slavery through manumission (formal acts of emancipation by their slave-owners). That had been the case for the Dodge family, whose mixed-blood ancestor had fought in the Revolution and been granted his freedom as a result.

After receiving their freedom former slaves often moved from the upper to the deep South, as did the Dodges who went from Virginia to Mississippi. For the most part, such movement was instigated by the possibility of money to be made in the Lower South’s cotton industry.

Robert Dodge was not like his father, who was a hard worker and entrepreneur. While Robert was blessed with musical talent he was cursed with a lack of discipline and need for instant gratification. He never settled in any town long because of his wanderlust and wherever he went trouble was not far behind.

Robert was one of many songsters who traveled around Mississippi singing and playing for house parties in what were called jukes or juke joints.

Robert Dodge
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Robert was born on a plantation
Charlie Dodge’s youngest son
The Dodges lived in Albemarle
Six generations before Charles

A Dodge had fought with Washington
That’s how their freedom was won
Charles left Virginia for Mississip’
He’d heard there was cotton to pick

Charles was good with his hands
He set up a blacksmith stand
Put his money in a crockery pot
Saved enough to buy his own spot

In the year nineteen-aught-one
Robert wanted his own freedom
He didn’t like plantation work
Picking cotton made his hands hurt

He got a guitar by trading his shoes
Started making money playing blues
He was known in all the juke joints
From Clarksdale to Friars Point

When he was living in Greenville
Took up with a gal named Lit’l Lil
Til her husband found them both in bed
And he hit Lit’l Lil upside the head

He came at Robert with a knife
Robert ran for his life
Shouting, “I don’t mean a thing to her
I’m just a poor songster”

He ran to Memphis on his bare feet
Found a hoodoo shop on Beale Street
A conjure woman sitting at a boiling pot
Said her brew would bring him luck

She gave him a bag made of jute
Filled with graveyard clay and snakeroot
Added some cat’s teeth and colored glass
Would make him play his guitar fast

He found his way to New Orleans
His fingers flew across his guitar strings
There was a train would take him North
To Chicago and Detroit

Robert was born on a plantation
Charlie Dodge’s youngest son
The Dodges lived in Albemarle
Six generations before Charles

 

© 2020 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Vernon and Molly”

Vernon Raney was 49 years old when he met Molly Motts, and didn’t need to get married, but that is just what he ended up doing; to a girl less than half his age.

The Raney family were bootleggers, had been making clear whiskey for more than a century before Vernon took over the still (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).  He made a change, though, from the family recipe, he began to age the distilled product in charred oak barrels, turning the clear shine to a golden tobacco color, and mellowing the taste considerably (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).

Molly Motts, from Delta, Louisiana, just across the river from Vicksburg, was a precocious young woman, who was looking for any way out of Delta when she met Vernon at a party on the Mississippi bank of the river, just outside Vicksburg (see song, “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney“).

Long story short, Vernon and Molly got married; Molly took over the moonshine business and turned it into a drug enterprise.  With the help of her two sons, they established a distribution network from Natchez to Memphis (see songs, “Louanne in Vicksburg” and “Molly on the Mountain“).

You could say that Vernon never knew what he was getting into when he married Molly, but then again, he was never known to say a cross word about Molly or their life together.

Vernon and Molly
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Vernon had his whiskey business
And his V-8 coupe
But he felt something was missing
He wasn’t sure just what to do
He wasn’t sure what to do

There was a party at the river
Vernon drove by real slow
Molly was tall and slender
He felt something inside let go
Something inside let go

Vernon was old enough to be her daddy
Molly was wiser than her years
She wanted more than what a small town could deliver
Vernon was her ticket out of there
Her ticket out of there

Once a month he went to Memphis
Delivering a load of shine
He did okay with his bootleg business
Could show Molly a good time
Show Molly a good time

They were always seen together
Then her belly began to show
Vernon said let’s put it on paper
She said I’m ready, let’s go
I’m ready, let’s go

Vernon was old enough to be her daddy …

Molly gave him three kids
Two sons and a daughter
She had plans beyond his
Vernon never fought her
He never fought her

Molly took over the business
Began selling pot and more
Vernon stopped going to Memphis
Spent his time down at the store
Spent his time down at the store

Vernon was old enough to be her daddy …

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Down 80 East”

Upon hearing of Lucy Cooper‘s death while in prison, Levi Hooper went on a bender.  Getting in his truck and driving through Mississippi: Greenwood, Greenville, Vicksburg and even into Louisiana.  He drank until drunk in small bars along the way (see songs, “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison” and “Levi After Lucy“).

This behavior was certainly unusual for Levi, normally a down-to-earth, church-going man who spent much of his spare time helping his mother, Mildred Motts Hooper,  with her house and business.  She had turned her home into a thrift shop a year after her husband passed on (see song, “Mildred’s House of Values“).

This drinking road trip only lasted a little over a week, but it was enough for Levi’s mother, to become concerned.  So it was with relief that he finally came home, and things returned to normal without Levi offering up any explanation as to the reason for his absence.

Down 80 East
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Levi woke up on the wrong side of the road
Sitting on the side of 80 East
Last thing he remembered was stumbling out that old church
Pressing a wrinkled twenty on the priest

Time to go back, runnin’ wild has run its course
He can’t run away from the grief
He needs a shave, a strong cup of coffee
Time to go back, down 80 East

He don’t understand why Lucy did what she did
She was so close to getting her parole
But this drinking and running has gone on long enough
What he’s looking for ain’t down this road

Time to go back, runnin’ wild has run its course …

All along Levi thought it too good to be true
Doubted he and Lucy would last
But it looked like she was headed in the right direction
In the end she just ran out of gas

Time to go back, runnin’ wild has run its course …

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Ready for Change”

Lucy Cooper and Levi Hooper met in Jackson, Mississippi when they lived across the street from each other (see song “Levi and Lucy”). They became involved in a relationship, something of an attraction of opposites: Levi was a church-going, salt of the earth type, whereas Lucy was a hell-raising rebel, who was no stranger to a variety of mind-altering substances.

However, Lucy had begun to feel that she had reached a dead end with her life, and was looking, most likely subconsciously, for new direction, one which seemed to be provided by Levi.

Unfortunately, Levi came along too late for Lucy, who was overtaken by the momentum and trajectory of her past life. One of her marijuana customers offered her name as his dealer, in exchange for a suspended sentence for simple possession. Lucy was arrested and convicted for distribution and sent to prison, where after a year into her 18 month sentence, she succumbed to depression and committed suicide (see song, “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison”).

Levi was left to pick up the pieces as best he could in the wake of this aborted relationship (see song, “Levi After Lucy”).

Ready for Change
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

When Lucy and Levi met
Lucy wasn’t ready yet
To turn over a new leaf
But she really wanted to
To do what she had to do
Her life had mostly brought her grief

The mirror Lucy looked in
Showed her where she had been
But not where she wanted to go to
Levi was steady, Levi was strong
Someone Lucy could rely upon
Change ain’t what you want but what you do

Lucy wasn’t sure how to start
But something was cooking in her heart
Pushing her past the life she had known
Levi was the catalyst
Even so it was hit or miss
All he could do was cheer Lucy on

The mirror Lucy looked in
Showed her where she had been
But not where she wanted to go to
Levi was steady, Levi was strong
Someone Lucy could rely upon
Change ain’t what you want but what you do

It’ll take some time
For Lucy to leave behind
The people and things holding her back

The mirror Lucy looked in
Showed her where she had been
But not where she wanted to go to
Levi was steady, Levi was strong
Someone Lucy could rely upon
Change ain’t what you want but what you do

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Molly on the Mountain”

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

Molly on the mountain …

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Meridian”

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
Mississippi State
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
Mississippi State
He was the first in the Harper family
To graduate

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Say Roy”

Royal Raney was the grandson of Lonsom Raney, legendary moonshiner and general hell-raiser of the North Georgia mountains.  Here, Lonsom is with a young Royal, spending some time on the family farm telling some history of their clan and in general initiating him into the Raney fold.

Say Roy
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Say Roy, get my walking stick
I want to take a look around the place
Get up boy, and you best be quick
I’m old ‘n’ ain’ got time to waste
Come on Roy, find your sense
I want to see that stretch o’ fence
Did you mend it right?
Let’s go, it’s almost light

Get up and make your bed
Boy don’ keep me waitin’ long
Ain’ you heard a single word I sed?
I want to sweep off your Grandma’s headstone
It looks like it might storm
Gonna stick my head in the barn
Did you milk the cow?
I wanna go and go now

[…]

I can see it just like yesterday
Walkin’ with my pap just like this
I was just about your age
And wanted a walkin’ stick just like his
Pap cut a branch, gave it to me
He cut it from a hickory tree
Said, “when that dries it’ll be good”
We’re standing where that hickory stood

Say Roy, let’s head back home
I done looked around the place
Come on boy, get a move on
I’m old ‘n’ ain’ got time to waste
Light the lamp, trim the wick
Here, take this walkin’ stick
It’ll be yours from now on
Come on Roy, let’s go home

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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.