Cocaine Bust: How Richie Albright Saved Waylon Jennings from Prison

Long time Waylon Jennings drummer and right hand man Richie Albright died earlier this week, and becomes the latest legend from the Outlaw country world to leave us in what has been a very short period of time stretching back into late 2020.

It’s really hard to put into words the kind of impact Richie Albright had on country music from behind the kit. As the guy that approached a frustrated Waylon in the early 70’s who was ready to quit music entirely as opposed to continuing to sing other people’s songs and record with other people’s musicians on Music Row, Richie said, “There’s another way of doing things, and that’s rock ‘n roll.” This became the rallying cry for the Outlaw country revolution.

But Richie was also one of those critical side men that you can make a strong case was just as important as the star themselves they helped support. Similar to Willie Nelson’s drummer Paul English, Richie Albright was the guy that kept the ship steered in the right direction, and did whatever it took to keep the show on the road. Without these guys, Willie and Waylon may have never achieved what they did.

There are many stories about Richie Albright’s selfless efforts to keep Waylon’s career on track or his bacon out of the fire, but possibly the best one that illustrates the loyalty Richie had towards Waylon is the notorious time when Waylon was busted for possession of cocaine. It could have been worse—much worse, if it wasn’t for the fast thinking of Albright. In fact, Richie was even willing to be the fall guy for Waylon, and be sent to prison so Waylon could beat the rap.

It was in the late summer of 1977, and Waylon was working on his contributions to the Hank Williams Jr. record The New South at the American Sound studio in Nashville owned by Chips Moman. Waylon was in the studio proper recording an overdub vocal, when he started hearing noise coming over his headphones, and it wasn’t his vocal playback, or Hank Jr.’s part of the song. Instead what Waylon heard was a conversation between the people in the control room and eight DEA agents that had shown up to the studio with a warrant for Waylon’s arrest for possession and intent to distribute cocaine.

Waylon’s manager Neil Reshen had sent Waylon a double wrapped package of a kilo of Colombian white powder, and it was sitting right next to him on a music stand in the studio. Waylon was able to hear the entire exchange going on the control room because Richie Albright was secretly mashing down the control room’s “talk back” button, which allows the control room to communicate with the performer.

“I grabbed the package from the music stand and threw it away behind me,” Waylon recalled in his autobiography. “I couldn’t make that shot again in a million years. It slid under a baseboard by the wall, just as pretty as you please. I knew that probably wouldn’t be good enough to fool them forever, but it would work for now.”

Then Waylon—acting like he was completely ignorant to what was happening in the control room—told Richie to replay the track to do another vocal take. The next take Waylon recorded was the one they used on Hank Jr.’s New South record. Waylon eventually went into the control room under the guise of discussing the take, and as others distracted the DEA agents, discussed the situation with Richie Albright.

“Well, I’m taking this one,” Richie told to Waylon, meaning he was willing to be the fall guy for the cocaine package. Waylon recalled in his autobiography, “Sometimes I thought Richie would’ve leapt in front of a freight train for me.” But Waylon wouldn’t allow it this time.

“‘You ain’t taking shit,” Waylon told Richie, and then Waylon sparked up a conversation with the DEA agents, who had two warrants for his arrest in hand. However, what they didn’t have was the cocaine, or a right to search the studio. The warrants only gave permission to the DEA agents to search Waylon’s office.

While the DEA agents hashed out how they could search the studio proper where the cocaine was, cool as a cucumber, Waylon and Richie continued the recording session, explaining that the studio time was costly, and they couldn’t waste a moment. Waylon walked back out into the studio to do another vocal take. After running another overdub, Richie walked out into the studio with Waylon under the pretense of adjusting the mic.

“Where is that shit?” Richie hissed at Waylon.

“First of all, you don’t need to know,” Waylon told him, though eventually fessed up that it was hidden below a baseboard. This is when a guy named George Lappe who also worked as a music manager showed up, and started berating the DEA agents. Waylon stepped in and tried to calm George Lappe down. Meanwhile amid the fracas, Richie Albright took the package of cocaine, stuffed it down his pants, walked to the studio bathroom, and flushed it down the toilet. Now, any evidence of cocaine possession was gone.

Eventually the DEA agents did get the proper warrants and searched the premises, eventually finding cocaine residue in a couple of plastic bags in the trash. According to Waylon, for all their searching, there was actually another vial full of cocaine in the studio and in plain sight they never found. Waylon was still booked and fingerprinted by the federal marshal’s office, but due to the lack of substantial evidence, the charges didn’t stick.

If the DEA agents had found the package of cocaine, there’s a good chance Waylon Jennings would have gone to prison for a sizable amount of time due to the volume of contraband, and the government’s efforts to pin him with intent to distribute and conspiracy as well. But thanks to the fast thinking and selflessness of Richie Albright, the crisis was averted.

Of course, Waylon ultimately did pay a price for his rampant and legendary cocaine use. It deteriorated his health, and cost him a fortune. He did eventually get sober, but trading drugs for food and the weakened state of his body due to years of drug abuse resulted in the diagnosis of diabetes, and an early death at the age of 64 in 2002.

Nonetheless, the actions and efforts of Richie Albright in many separate instances is what allowed Waylon to rise to the top and stay there for as long as he did. Who knows what a five to ten year stint in prison would have done for Waylon’s career. But thanks to Richie Albright, it never happened.

Of course, the incident was later chronicled in Waylon’s #1 song “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.” The incident was also chronicled in Mike Judge’s Tales from the Tour Bus animated series on Showtime where Richie Albright himself tells a slightly different version of the story (see below), but the significant details still check out.

Country music.

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