Basso Profundo: How a college football standout became an international opera star

robinson

Morris Robinson is trying to lay low, something that’s never been easy for him. If anyone failed to see the 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound vocalist lumbering through the lobby of the Woodruff Arts Center an hour ago in black ostrich-skin boots, tuxedo pants, and untucked maroon T-shirt, they certainly heard his voice. Or rather felt it—a sonorous “Hello! How’s it going?” to the doorman at Symphony Hall that seemed to make the walls, the carpeted concrete floor, even the humid air waver like a tuning fork.

Tonight Robinson’s bass is even deeper thanks to some congestion—the onset of what he fears is a cold. That’s why he spent the afternoon resting alone in a darkened Buckhead hotel room instead of surrounded by family at his home in Tyrone, just 35 minutes south. And it’s why he sequestered himself in a cramped dressing room in the bowels of the Woodruff, where he periodically cleared out his pipes with bursts of la-la-la’s, doh’s, and rolling Italian rrrrr’s that made the white-tied instrumentalists start as they passed. And it’s why now, minutes before showtime, Robinson is backstage pacing, size-15 boots falling heavy on the hardwood to and from the stage door, where he keeps peeking out at the packed house. “I’m going to own the room,” he says to himself. “When I walk out, I’m going to take control.”

The sweat is beading on his shaved head. This is a rare show in Robinson’s hometown, a recital to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, his sixth performance in this building as artist-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Many of the people out there are friends and family. Some remember him as DeRhon—his middle name—the boy who sang in church but set aside music to play football, becoming an All-American lineman at the Citadel, before moving north to embark on a career in business. Maybe they’ve heard something about the man who, in his 30s, rediscovered classical music and left the world of corporate sales to become an opera singer.

It’s time. Robinson takes a last swig of lukewarm water and straightens his jacket. He clears his throat one final time and quickly blows a kiss to the sky, to the one lifelong fan who isn’t here—the mother who seemed to know all along that her son’s voice was meant to stir the masses.

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Giving Nashville The Boot

Last year, three of the top six moneymakers in country music were Georgia boys: Macon’s Jason Aldean, Leesburg’s Luke Bryan, and Dahlonega’s Zac Brown Band. Scroll farther down the country charts and the Peach State continues to represent: Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard (Monroe), Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood (both from Augusta), and Kip Moore (Tifton). Of course, Georgia has a long tradition of producing musical talent across all genres, from Otis Redding to the Indigo Girls to R.E.M. to Ludacris to India.Arie to 2 Chainz. Even the lyrics to “Moon River” were written by a Georgian. Rappers still come to Atlanta to be part of the city’s hip-hop scene. But country artists? They leave for Nashville. Or do they? Here in Georgia, a few country musicians are taking a pass on Music City, choosing not just to live here but to write, record, and perform here. The decision comes at a cost.

Levi Lowrey
Levi Lowrey on the road.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN RASMUSSEN

In a cluttered storage room above a friend’s garage in Dacula, 31-year-old Levi Lowrey hunches over a MacBook, playing back some vocal tracks he recorded. He hides a young face behind a bushy black beard, and if you didn’t know him, you might think he was just a computer geek sitting amid dusty exercise equipment and old boxes.

Those who do know Lowrey might think something different: that this is a dismal place to be at this point in his music career. He’s released two albums with Zac Brown as a producer; has recorded with Nashville legends like Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and banjo master Darrell Scott; played Ryman Auditorium and Madison Square Garden as an opening act; and written two of Zac Brown Band’s biggest hits, including “Colder Weather,” which garnered Lowrey a Country Music Association Award nomination for song of the year.

But the songs coming out of his laptop are unlike anything you’d hear at the CMAs; they’re frenetic, bouncing among Southern rock, pop, bluegrass, alternative, and folk. There’s even a sea chantey. The lyrics are deeply personal: about his wife’s cancer and his own neglect of family in pursuit of professional success. Lowrey’s new album, “My Crazy Head,” which he recorded entirely himself in this room and his basement, is a liberation from more than five years of Nashville restraint. “The title song is my country anthem,” he says. “Now I can do whatever I want.”

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Mike Tokars: What happened to the boy who witnessed his mother’s murder?

tokarsMike Tokars was four years old on November 29, 1992. Yet he remembers the events of that night clearly, and he recounts them with an almost unsettling calm.

He recalls waking up in the back of his mother’s 4Runner, which was in the garage of the family’s East Cobb home. A strange man emerged from the house with a sawed-off shotgun. The stranger kicked the family’s Springer Spaniel, Jake; jumped into the backseat beside Mike; and ordered Mike’s mother, Sara Tokars, to drive to a vacant residential development about a half mile away, where she pulled over. Then a gunshot. The stranger fled. From the passenger seat, Mike’s six-year-old brother, Rick, leaned over and turned off the ignition. Seeing their mother slumped over the steering wheel, Rick told Mike they had to go for help. But Mike sensed she was dead. The two boys ran about a hundred yards through the dark, through bushes with thorns that cut them, their blood mixing with that of their mother. The next morning, over a breakfast of their uncle’s waffles, the two boys kept saying: If only Dad had been there with his gun.

The brothers moved in with their maternal grandparents in coastal Bradenton, Florida. Their father, Fred Tokars—a high-profile Atlanta criminal defense attorney—would call and occasionally visit. He phoned on Mike’s sixth birthday, but when Mike tried to pass the phone to his brother, Rick refused. They both knew their father had been arrested, but Rick knew the implications. Back in Atlanta, Fred Tokars was charged with hiring the stranger, Curtis Rower, to kill Sara in an attempt to cover up his secret life of drug trafficking and money laundering. Mike never spoke to his father again. “At that point, he was no longer a good guy in my eyes,” says Mike.

Fred Tokars’s 1997 trial and conviction was broadcast nationally on Court TV. Mike did not attend. Family and friends shielded the boys, but “sometimes it would come up,” says Mike. “And when it didn’t, I knew that they knew.” Eventually public memory of the tragedy faded. “As we got older, we had more control over who knew,” says Mike. “I was always open about it with my close friends. I wanted to explain—talking about my parents made me feel like a normal person.” Mike says that wasn’t the case with his brother, who was much more guarded. “I can’t remember a single instance of us talking about it,” says Mike. “We didn’t need to.” On the 10th anniversary of their mother’s murder, Mike tried to broach the topic; Rick cut him off, and the two went surfing.

Rick went to college in San Diego and is now an avid surfer and traveler. Mike stayed closer to home, attending Tallahassee Community College and then the University of South Florida, where he majored in history and English literature. But he devoted more time and energy to touring the South by van and playing guitar in punk rock and ska bands. Reading “The Rum Diary” by Hunter S. Thompson inspired him to become a reporter and writer, so he moved to New York, where he interned and freelanced. On a whim, he applied to the Master of Journalism program at Columbia University and was shocked to be accepted. He plans to graduate this spring.

Reporters occasionally contact Mike about his parents; from inside prison his father has become a prolific prosecution witness, having helped solve six murders. Mike says his experience gives him insight into and empathy for the people he writes about who have suffered loss. More than anything, facing evil at such an early age has shaped the way he has approached his own life. “I don’t take anything for granted, don’t expect to be comfortable or safe,” he says. That’s not necessarily negative, he explains, using a surfing analogy: “When you’re in the water, you always worry that there’s a shark. But there’s a calmness when you actually spot a fin—you know the evil is there.”

—30—

Published in the March 2015 issue of Atlanta

Re: Fredi

re-frediAll my boss does is complain about the Braves’ manager. To shut him up, I proposed a story showing him how lucky he and Atlanta baseball fans actually are.

Date: October 8, 2013
To: sfennessy@atlantamagazine.com
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Condolences—and a story idea

Steve,

Sorry about your Braves. I’m sure you watched to the bitter end, right? I mean, it was the playoffs, after all.

They had it. Up 3–2 on the Dodgers. Game 4. Six outs from tying the series. Then David Carpenter gives up that double to lead off the eighth. Camera cuts to Braves dugout, Fredi Gonzalez chomping on his sunflower seeds. Then a shot of Craig Kimbrel, only the game’s best closer, in the Atlanta bullpen, just waiting for the call. A call that Fredi wouldn’t make. You’re probably screaming, Jesus, Fredi, put in Kimbrel! Instead, Juan Uribe parks Carpenter’s hanging curve in the lot beyond left field. Etc., etc. Braves choke again. I swear I could hear the chant in my neighborhood: Fire Fredi! Fire Fredi!

Sorry. Didn’t mean to mock your misery. (Well, maybe a little.) I’m still relatively new to town, not a Braves fan. But I’ve followed baseball most of my life, and I’ve gotta say that some Braves fans seem to have an inflated sense of their own suffering. You’ve had, what, two losing seasons in the past twenty-three? Fifteen division championships? Five pennants? C’mon!

And what has Fredi done but continue that success?

Since taking over the Braves three years ago, he’s won more games than any manager in major league baseball except the Rangers’ Ron Washington. Fourth-best record in the majors in 2012, second-best in 2013. But you guys still hate him. The sarcastic Twitter handles. The Fire Fredi Facebook page. The whining about his one career playoff win.

Look: Fredi’s fifty years old, and he’s been a big-league manager a total of seven seasons. In their first seven seasons, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and your own Bobby Cox combined got only one playoff win. Fredi has the sixth-highest career winning percentage among active managers and more wins in his career than Torre, LaRussa, or Cox had at the same point in their careers.

Anyway, my story idea: It would be about Fredi—sorta—but would actually be about the baseball fans around here who need to stop complaining and appreciate what they have.

Let me know.

Best,

Tony

Date: October 10, 2013
To: sfennessy@atlantamagazine.com
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Fredi

Steve,

Quick follow-up: Any story would have to look at what a baseball manager actually does. Sure, he makes the lineup, shifts the fielders, calls the bullpen. But much of the game is out of his control. Hitters have to hit. Pitchers have to pitch. There’s this sabermetrician, James Click, who studied manager-driven statistics like bunting, intentional walks, and stolen bases. He couldn’t find a single manager who consistently helped his team win more by trying these things. So, this infallible tactician you’re looking for? Sorry, he doesn’t exist. And let’s say we get to July and you’re more tired of Fredi than ever. Firing him won’t work either. Analysts have found that midseason managerial switches have negligible impacts on winning. Maybe you should ask yourself who built the team you have? That would be general manager Frank Wren, using money from Liberty Media. In 2003, when Time Warner still owned the Braves, payroll was $106 million, third-highest in the majors. In 2013 it was $89 million, which ranked sixteenth. News flash: The sixteenth-best team has never made the playoffs. Meaning that Wren has spent the money pretty well—except when he hasn’t. Nearly a third of last year’s payroll went to B.J. Upton (.184) and Dan Uggla (.179), who combined for 322 strikeouts. All Fredi’s team did with the rest of the money was win ninety-six games.

And you’re blaming him?

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This Land Is My Land

MountainFued_02Just before 10 a.m. on September 7, 2009, residents of Mill Creek heard gunshots. Some heard one shot; others as many as three. At the time it did not seem important. The sound was not uncommon along Mill Creek Road, an unmarked ribbon of blacktop winding through the hills four miles southeast of Dahlonega. Even when deer and turkey were out of season, hunters fired in their backyards and farmers scared foxes and coyotes from their fields. For thirty-one years, seventy-two-year-old retired plumber and former licensed gun dealer Lewis Dempsey had taken to his hundred acres, where he and his customers rehearsed a symphony of percussion: the crack of a 12-gauge shotgun, the rat-a-tat of an AK-47.

The report coming through the cornrows and timber on that clear Labor Day morning was the pop of Dempsey’s Glock 9 mm. But it came from the south, from the neighboring Crane land. The Cranes were Mill Creek’s longest-tenured residents. For almost a century they owned most of its land. Although they had sold the bulk of that land to newcomers like the Dempseys, the Cranes still held sway in those hills. Their patriarch was seventy-six-year-old Jewell Crane, storyteller, moonshiner, unofficial mayor of Mill Creek.

That morning Crane drove his blue pickup toward his garden to tend his collard greens. But after the shot, or shots, he lay on his back on the ground by his truck, camouflage hat knocked from his balding head, blue denim overalls darkening with blood. And Dempsey drove north on Mill Creek Road in his Ford Escape, across the boundary that separated Crane’s property from his own.

There are no straight lines in nature. Rivers, mountain ranges, and timberlines wind and bend and gradually shift across the landscape with time. They make imperfect borders. The Cherokee who first inhabited these hills believed a man could no more set aside land for himself than he could bottle the wind. They were barred from the 1832 Gold Lottery that raffled off pieces of Cherokee territory to white residents of what became Lumpkin County, driving the tribe westward on the Trail of Tears.

On paper these parcels were perfect squares of forty acres—a quarter the size of standard Georgia farm lots. At the height of Georgia’s Gold Rush, these gold lots were in high demand. But by the 1840s, the gold was mined out and the prospectors had gone to California. Over the next 150 years, the property grid was divided among new generations and sold to outsiders, piece by irregular piece. During these transfers, surveyors would enter dubious landmarks such as “rock piles” and “big trees” into the deed descriptions. “I once came across a property line described as ‘Two smokes on a mule’s back from the chestnut stump,’” says Richard Webb, who in thirty-six years as a surveyor in North Georgia has dug through volumes of yellowed maps and deeds. “Well, how big was the mule? And what were you smoking?”

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The Last Trawlers

0412_Feature_ShrimpPhotoMichael Boone can find the sea with his eyes closed. He peers into the black of 3 a.m. from the helm of the Little Man, hands on the pegs at ten and two, guiding the seventy-five-foot fiberglass trawler slowly down the narrow Darien River toward the Atlantic. The only light is a half moon and an electronic depth finder that throws the young captain’s reflection onto the pilothouse window. Michael barely looks at the instrument. He knows by heart every rock, every coil and curve of the grassy shore, every jut in the shallows and hunk of debris that lurks just beneath the calm, dark surface. He has run these eleven winding miles, in blinding rain and fog, since he was twelve and had to stand on a milk crate his daddy bolted to the floor so he could see over the wheel.

Michael’s feel for these waters reaches beyond his own experience. He inherited this path from his father, who learned it from his father, who learned it from his. Four generations of Boones, one of several families puttering out from Darien, a small town sixty miles down the coast from Savannah, to scour the ocean floor for shrimp. And other than a few tweaks in navigational technology and creature comforts like an air-conditioned cabin, the shorted-out TV in the back, and the clunky flip-phone that does little more than take calls and tell time in his pocket, Michael operates pretty much in a clearer snapshot of how his grandpa, Sinkey Boone, fished, the way so many men have shrimped off Georgia for more than sixty years. There aren’t as many of those men as there used to be. The Little Man slips past several boats, tow arms up, paint-chipped hulls barnacled, bobbing idly at dock along the river. More than 200 boats once trolled here. Now there are maybe half that. Buildings are shuttered, piers in disrepair. Darien is quiet. Some families, like the Skippers, have sold off their fleets and their docks. Others cling to the helm only because they have nowhere else to go. Michael started skipping school at age eleven to join his father on the boat. Today, at twenty-three, he is easily one of the youngest boat captains—perhaps the youngest—in these parts, an exception to a new Darien generation that has been steered away, if not discouraged by the old guard, from the sea, Michael’s two older brothers included. These waters, after all, are troubled. The price of gas is too high, the price of shrimp too low. The market has been flooded by competition from shrimp farmers, foreign and domestic. Wild Georgia shrimp are scarce at the neighborhood restaurant and grocery store. Worse, nobody seems to know enough about the homegrown variety to ask. And meanwhile the nets’ harvest is not as bountiful as it once was.

Michael Boone stares ahead, piloting the Little Man out of Doughboy Sound and into the ocean, choppy waters slapping against the hull. He gently opens the throttle, revving the ancient engine in the belly of the boat to life. Course charted, speed leveled at just over eight knots, Michael leans back in his captain’s chair. He holds the giant wooden wheel with an outstretched foot and rests his hands behind his head. Outside, the unseen sun traces the horizon with a thin white line as night lifts over a boundless sea.

In the distance, he counts one, two, three starlike specks scattered on the water—lights from the decks of other shrimping boats, working through the night. Michael can envision a much different scene from not so long ago, lights almost innumerable, a skyline at sea. “There used to be twenty, thirty, forty boats out there,” he says flatly. “Twenty years ago, this was a city.”

Back on the mainland, the city of Darien—population 1,900, seat of McIntosh County—is little more than a few streetlights whizzing by on a nighttime drive down I-95. But its position along a natural tributary, at the mouth of the Altamaha River, made it a boomtown in the 1800s and early 1900s. The river rafted large loads of longleaf pine and cypress from the Georgia interior into Darien to be milled and shipped around the world. In the 1940s, one of those log bundles floated a man named Tessie Boone from Tattnall County, two counties inland, to town.

By that time, more than a century of unfettered cutting had decimated Georgia’s timber industry. But Darien had already begun reinventing itself as a fishing town.

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Old Spirits

moonshiners02I am in the passenger’s seat of a Chevy Silverado winding through the foothills of northeast Georgia, trying to learn the story of Carlos Lovell. But fifteen minutes into the drive, the man has barely uttered ten words from behind the wheel, and frankly, his deep, jowl-draped frown has silenced me in fear that the wrong question might land me in the ditch. The only sounds in the cab are Rush Limbaugh on the AM radio and the moan of the Chevy’s V8 pulling us up the narrow Habersham County mountain roads.

Carlos Lovell is eighty-six, and this interview was definitely not his idea. I don’t think he even knows my name or whom I’m with; he never asked. He refers to me as “that reporter fella”—even when I’m standing five feet from him. He tells his employees I “ask too many questions.” At any rate, I get the feeling the old man would much rather be working. Besides, he has never been much of a talker. For almost half his life, his family’s income—not to mention his freedom—depended on discretion.

Lovell was a moonshiner. At age sixteen, he started cooking illegal liquor and selling it by the truckload throughout North Georgia, right under the noses of local authorities. He and his brothers learned the practice from their father, Virgil, who himself had learned it from his uncle. Off and on for a hundred years, beginning in the 1860s, remote patches of these timberlands were thick with the warm scent of boiling corn and the thump, rattle, and hiss of a Lovell copper still.

The Lovells were far from alone. Since the eighteenth century, alcohol was a common by-product of some American farms, not unlike butter or cheese that came from excess milk. Barrels of whiskey were more valuable than silos of corn. Some farmers kept it for themselves; others sold it. In colonial times, whiskey was bartered as hard currency. But in 1862, to help pay for the Civil War, the federal government reinstated an old tax on distilled spirits (President Jefferson Davis outlawed the production of liquor to save grain for the Confederate Army). After the war, homemade spirits were a major, if illegal, commodity in the devastated agrarian South. By 1880 the Internal Revenue Service was seizing about 1,000 illegal stills a year. In 1924, the height of Prohibition, 13,023 moonshine operations were broken up across the U.S., and 2,824—more than a fifth of them—were busted in Georgia alone. The prevalence of illicit booze in Georgia gave rise to the mythical Southern moonshiner in a souped-up jalopy, racing police through twisted mountain roads, past still fires strewn like Christmas lights across the Smokies and by Appalachian springs spouting pure white lightning. Even today, it’s not unheard of for hunters in these parts to stumble upon a woodland still—since 2011 the Georgia Department of Revenue has dismantled eleven, most of them small operations evidently used for private consumption.

One night four years ago, as he tells it, Carlos Lovell rolled over in bed and decided that, after forty years out of the business, he would make whiskey again. And this time, he’d do it by the book. With savings from two decades of dealing in mountain real estate, Lovell built a distillery and expanded a warehouse right off of State Route 13, twenty-some miles from the old Lovell homestead on the outskirts of Clarkesville, the Habersham seat. He plastered the name Ivy Mountain—site of several of his old stills—on the distillery’s water silo, slapped his guarantee of the 150-year-old family recipe right beneath his picture on the label, and waited for the cash to flow like the old days, now clean and easy.

In one respect, Lovell’s timing could not have been more providential. After all, we are living in the age of the artisan, when the quest for “authenticity” means we’ll gladly pay $8 for a quart of lion’s mane mushrooms and $10 for a few ounces of fresh pasta. Why should our booze be any different? And what could be more “of-the-earth” than rediscovering the methods of hill folk who’ve crafted their own liquor for generations?

But in many ways, the wilderness of the modern marketplace has been more ruthless than any booze-sniffing police dog or power-tripping revenue agent. The artisanal movement means Ivy Mountain Georgia Sour Mash Whiskey is competing for shelf space not only with the barrel-chested Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, but also with a cluster of other like-minded boutique distilleries that have sprouted all over the region. In Lovell’s mind, the whiskey itself, born of experience and instinct that reaches back through his bloodline, processed with hard work and care, and sold for an honest price, should be enough to set Ivy Mountain apart. But his daughter, his employees, and the marketing firm they hired know that nowadays consumers pay for image as much as product. They believe people will line up to buy “legal moonshine” straight from the mountain still of a Georgia legend. They just need to know the legend.

That’s why they’re prodding Lovell to lead public tours of his distillery, why they have this farmer who sprouts and grinds his own corn slouched behind a fold-up table at Costco, signing bottles of his 86-proof lifeblood alongside the hair-netted warehouse club employees who hawk toothpick meatballs and samples of granola.

And today, it’s the reason Lovell is reluctantly chauffeuring me, a complete stranger in broad daylight, to the mountain spring that, according to his spiffy new website, “the Lovell family has used for 150 years to make their legendary moonshine.”

We climb down from the truck, and Lovell leads me, sans blindfold, through the trees and across the hillside to a squat stone springhouse dating to the mid-1800s. Behind the building, a stream of cold, clear water runs downhill. Lovell tells me that, for a couple of decades while he was retired, he leased this land to a company that bottled it as drinking water. There’s unmistakable pride in his voice, but I also detect a touch of disdain—as if using the water for that purpose had been a terrible waste.

Back in Lovell’s office—an empty-shoebox room in the back of the distillery with a bare desk, three mismatched chairs, a phone on the cement floor, and a window looking out to the gleaming copper-and-steel industrial still that stands atop a five-foot riser—the boss lays down rules for our interview. When I pull out my iPhone and ask to record, Lovell waves it away. Another rule: No names. “Most of the people I did business with are dead,” he says. “But their family might still be around.”

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