Country History X: The George Jones Drug Tapes

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the inaugural episode of Country History X, which looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. We start by telling the crazy story of how a box of unheard and currently-unpublished George Jones reel-to-reel master tapes ended up being used as the bond collateral for two international drug smugglers.

It might be one of the wildest stories in country music of all time, and it’s one whose conclusion is still yet to be written. That is one of the reasons it was chosen as the first episode, since eventually updates will be necessary as the story continues to unfold.

Editor’s notes:

Currently Country History X is experiencing some distribution issues, probably due to podcast networks flagging it due to the “X” in the name, thinking it contains graphic content. But it is currently available on YouTube (see below), Spotify, Pocket Casts, and Anchor, and all current episodes will hopefully be available everywhere by early next week.

The preferable way people would consume the podcast would be on YouTube, since there is more control on the user end for the content compared to streaming services and podcast hosts (see above). You can subscribe to Saving Country Music on YouTube.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.

Transcript

Of all the crazy and sordid stories burrowed deep in the nooks and crannies of country music history that one could unearth, brush off, and present to the public, arguably nobody owns more of them than “The Possum,” Mr. George Jones. There’s the narrative threads intertwined with his notorious and tumultuous marriage with Tammy Wynette. There’s the stories of his misadventures on the back of riding lawnmowers, which were later memorialized in numerous country music songs and videos.

Yes, it’s true. George Jones really did hitch a ride on a riding lawnmower to fetch alcohol after he was forbidden from driving regular motor vehicles. Though one little fact that often gets overlooked about the George Jones lawnmower stories is that there were actually two lawnmower incidents. The first happened in the late 60’s when Jones was living about eight miles outside of Beaumont, Texas with his second wife Shirley Ann Corley. Whenever she left the house, Shirley Ann would take all the keys to the vehicles so Jones couldn’t go to the liquor store. So one evening Jones hopped on the back of a riding lawnmower and made the eight mile trek to town in bunny gear.

But Jones pulled the same bit in the 1970’s when he was married to Tammy Wynette. She woke up in the middle of the night one time to find George Jones gone. Like Shirley Ann, she had hidden the car keys, so George jockeyed the lawn equipment, and was later found 10 miles away at the nearest bar. According to Tammy, when she walked in the door of the bar, George Jones said quote, “Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife, I told you she’d come after me.’”

Perhaps there will be a more opportune time to get into the finer details of those infamous lawnmower moments in the future, and hopefully there will be further opportunities for many of the most notorious George Jones stories. It’s sort of a bottomless well of some of the greatest country music lore and misadventures.

But just over the last year or two, another George Jones epic has emerged that hasn’t been chronicled in any biographies, or history books, or podcasts, or anything else. It’s a story we still don’t have the full picture on, and it may be years before we’re able to put the final period at the end of it. But just like any good George Jones tale, it has all the wildness and intrigue you would want. In fact, it might be the most wild George Jones account of them all, with a big payoff awaiting us all at the end. Let’s just call it “The George Jones Drug Tapes.”

Whether you’re a weekender or a full timer in classic country music, you must have at least a cursory notion of the incessant battles George Jones fought with alcoholism and drug abuse throughout most of his career. Along with the nickname “The Possum,” George was also known by many as “No Show Jones” for the amount of appearances booked that he ultimately wouldn’t arrive at for one reason or another. In 1979 alone, George Jones missed a total of 54 scheduled appearances, and it was mostly tied to the same benders that had George’s significant others regularly hiding the keys from him, and locking him in the house.

George Jones was first institutionalized in 1967 in a neurological hospital for abuse of alcohol and amphetamines. This was about the time of the first lawnmower incident, when he was still married to Shirley Ann Corley. In October of 1970 when he was married to Tammy Wynette and she had just given birth to the couple’s only child Georgette, papa George had to be straightjacketed and was admitted to the Watson Clinic in Lakeland, Florida, and spent 10 days detoxing in a padded cell in the facility. He was later prescribed the sedative Librium to help even him out.

And these were some of the more mild and early incidents in the George Jones legacy of wrestling with his demons. In fact at the time, he was riding high in his professional career, and the psychotic moments were just detours on the way to his Hall of Fame legacy. George Jones was scoring big hits with songs like “Walk Through This World With Me” and “A Good Year For The Roses.” His biggest commercial peak was still to come though, as was his biggest struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, which would eventually lead to two international drug smugglers standing in front of a federal magistrate, and offering up a box of unreleased George Jones master tapes as bond collateral.

David L. Snoddy and Donald E. Gilbreth were partners in both the music business, and the drug business back in the early 80’s. They were riding high until 1983 when they were indicted and arrested on drug charges by federal agents in Louisiana for the attempted purchase, possession, and distribution of over 40,000 pounds of marijuana. Case number 2:83-cr-541, USA vs David L. Snoddy and Donald E. Gilbreth, was presided over by U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald A. Fonseca, who set bond for the drug smugglers and music tycoons at $1 million dollars.

The problem for Snoddy and Gilbreth is that neither had $1 million dollars at that time. But what they did have—or claimed to have—was a box full of unreleased and unheard George Jones tapes containing five reel-to-reel masters with 35 total songs performed live. The defendants produced an expert appraiser who said the tapes were worth about $1.2 million dollars at the time. The appraiser vouched in 1984, quote, “You need to keep in mind that these albums will continue to grow in worth because of the legend of George Jones. As time goes on, he will not be recording forever, but the legend lives on.”

And this was true. When George Jones died on April 26th, 2013, that was the end of the road for The Possum’s recorded output. Where some artists will horde unreleased material in an archive in the unfortunate event of their passing, or perhaps labels will do the same—holding unreleased songs in their vaults for decades—that wasn’t the case with George Jones. And in the early 80’s when these tapes were offered up for collateral by David Snoddy and Donald Gilbreth, George Jones was one of the hottest things in country music, and was enjoying a late career resurgence.

Just as the 80’s decade was getting started, George Jones released the landmark song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam. Though Jones himself initially didn’t care for the song, and told his producer Billy Sherrill who brought it to him, quote, “Nobody’ll buy that morbid son of a bitch,” George Jones was flat out wrong. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is now considered by many as the greatest country song of all time.

It became a #1 hit, won a Grammy, and won the CMA Song of the Year in 1980, and in 1981. Yes, the song was so highly regarded, it won the same award in consecutive years. The song has since been entered into the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry. It was also the first George Jones #1 song in six years, and revitalized his career.

In the early 80’s, George Jones would have numerous other hits, including a #1 for “Still Doin’ Time” in 1981, and “I Always Get Lucky With You” in 1983. George Jones got to #8 with a song that would later become one of his signature tracks, “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will).” And at about the time drug dealers David Snoddy and Donald Gilbreth were standing in front of Magistrate Judge Ronald Fonseca, pleading their case that their box of George Jones tapes was worthy collateral, George Jones was climbing the charts with the song “Tennessee Whiskey” written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove that had initially been recorded by David Allan Coe, and would go on to launch the career of Chris Stapleton nearly 30 years later when he would perform it with Justin Timberlake on the 2015 CMA Awards.

Lucky for Snoddy and Gilbreth, the judge bit hard on the idea that the George Jones tapes were worth seven figures, and the two drug smugglers were out of jail, at least for the moment. The judge didn’t even listen to the tapes at the time to confirm their authenticity, or to check if there was even any music on them at all. A note from the court accompanying the tapes reads, quote, “The above exhibits were not played by the undersigned magistrate, and the songs contained on said tapes were not verified,” unquote.

But where did the George Jones drug tapes come from, what’s on them, when were they recorded, and how did they become the legal possession of two drug dealers where they could use them in exchange for cash bond? That’s where Nashville-based booking agent and producer Jimmy Klein comes into the picture. Before the George Jones Drug Tapes could be used for collateral, Jimmy Klein had to sign an affidavit affirming that Donald Gilbreth was the rightful owner of the tapes, and that Klein had been the rightful owner of the tapes previously so that he had the right to sign ownership over. But where did Jimmy Klein get the tapes?

Jimmy Klein was the booking agent for George Jones and fellow Hall of Famer Connie Smith in 1966. This is when the George Jones Drug Tapes were allegedly recorded. It is believed that George Jones and his backing touring band called The Jones Boys walked into the Nugget Studios in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, and cut 35 songs live to tape. Why exactly they recorded the songs has yet to be confirmed, though taking clues from the collection of recordings, the fact that Jones cut them with his touring band and not session musicians which was the custom at the time, the recordings were likely for a radio special, or some other promotional use.

It wouldn’t be unusual in country music in the mid to late 60’s to make such tapes. Jimmy Klein and Donald Gilbreth acted as the producers for the recordings—that’s Donald Gilbreth, who along with David Snoddy, owned World-Wide Records, which along with being a musical operation, may have worked as a front in the drug smuggling business. But for whatever reason, the results of the Nugget Studios sessions with George Jones and The Jones Boys were never broadcast, never released, and ended up hanging out in the same box they continue to be in today.

How did Jimmy Klein obtain rightful possession of the recordings as opposed to the estate of George Jones? That’s another question. Along with being a booking agent and producer, Jimmy Klein later became a partner in the music business with the drug kingpens David Snoddy and Donald Gilbreth. Jimmy Klein swore that in 1982, George Jones signed an affidavit affirming Jones legally surrendered all rights to the 1966 Nugget Studios recordings to him and Donald Gilbreth, which considering the state George Jones was in during 1982, is not an entirely implausible scenario.

The resurgent success George Jones enjoyed in the early 80’s didn’t vanquish his demons, it fueled them, and 1982 was the year he hit his lowest of lows, even as his music was experiencing the highest of highs. Early in 1982 is when George Jones first fell into major trouble with the law when he was pulled over in Mississippi, and was arrested for driving under the influence and possession of cocaine. Then while driving to his home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama on March 29th, 1982, George Jones wrecked his car, and was hospitalized in Birmingham where he was later treated for alcoholism and drug abuse. But soon after he was discharged, The Possum relapsed again, which resulted in maybe the most high-profile wild moment of his career.

On Tuesday, May 25th, 1982, George Jones was observed by a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer swerving in and out of lanes on Interstate 65 south of Brentwood, coming from Nashville. Officer Tommy Campsey tried to pull Jones over, who continued to drive down the interstate, not exactly attempting to evading arrest, but more just not seeming to care. Jones finally did pull over, and a half empty bottle of whiskey was found in the car. Jones also didn’t have a license plate on the car at the time. Instead, he simply had a piece of cardboard stuck where the license plate was supposed to be that read, “Possum #3.”

Also, just as Jones was being pulled over and arrested at about 7:00 p.m., the camera crew for a local news channel happened to be driving by. Recognizing the country superstar, the camera crew stopped to record the incident. Jones would have none of it, insisting he wasn’t drunk, and tried to kick the cameraman in the groin.

Jones was later taken to the Williamson County Jail in Franklin where he was held on $500 bond, and “Possum #3” was impounded. So is it plausible that in 1982 as George Jones was burning through money on booze and cocaine binges that he signed away his rights to the master tapes first recorded in 1966 at Nugget Studios by Jimmy Klein in exchange for drugs or something else? It most certainly is, though we don’t know for certain.

But that’s not the end of the road for the convoluted chain of custody for the George Jones Drug Tapes. Drug smugglers David Snoddy and Donald Gilbreth eventually were found guilty of their crimes in 1986 and sent to prison, which also meant that their bond was cancelled, and the collateral was no longer the property of the government. A judge ordered possession of the tapes to be returned to Donald Gilbreth. This is where the lineage of the tapes takes a strange turn. After Donald Gilbreth’s conviction in 1986, his attorney went to the court vault to retrieve the tapes. Gilbreth’s lawyer even signed for them, and court records show the court relinquished possession. But nearly 30 years later, in 2014, when a Louisiana federal court clerk was going through a bank vault in New Orleans, he found the box of tapes still in the possession of the federal court.

This began a legal process that is still yet to be completely untangled. When the tapes were discovered, the rightful owner Donald Gilbreth was dead, and his partner David Snoddy was still in prison. So a search for the heirs of Donald Gilbreth ensued to deliver the tapes to their rightful owners. Legal notices were posted in local newspapers, the court attempted to track down blood relatives. Eventually the son of a woman that was once married to Donald Gilbreth came forward claiming ownership, but then David Snoddy was released from prison, and claimed ownership himself.

What happened later is sort of a mess of names and dates and legal filings, but long story short, eventually the George Jones Drug Tapes ended up in the possession of a court appointed attorney named Dwayne Maddox, who took custody of the the tapes, and has them locked in a safe deposit box near his office in Tennessee. Very likely, half of the ownership will go to David Snoddy, and the other half will go to rightful heirs of Donald Gilbreth, if or when they’re ever located.

Complicating matters even more, after SavingCountryMusic.com and other outlets reported on the George Jones Drug Tapes in May of 2020, the sons of George Jones and his second wife Shirley Ann Corley came forward to sue multiple defendants in the United States District Court of Middle Tennessee for what they claim is performance rights owed for the tapes. The lawsuit explains that Bryan and Jeffery Jones are entitled to half the songwriting rights of the catalog of George Jones while he was married to Shirley Ann Corley, per the couple’s divorce agreement.

Since the George Jones Drug Tapes were recorded in 1966 when Jones was still married to Shirley Ann, they may fall under the divorce agreement’s stipulations. But if George Jones signed all of his rights away, maybe the don’t. It’s yet another matter for the courts to decide in the convoluted case. Meanwhile, no money has been made off the tapes just yet, and nobody has even verified if there’s any music on the tapes at all, or what kind of condition that music might be in.

However, the lawsuit by the sons of George Jones did expose the public to a bit more information on what might be on the tapes, if they haven’t been a scam the whole time. According to the lawsuit, the collection constitutes eight reel-to-reel master recordings identified as “Album #2, Album #3, Album #4, and a fourth unnamed project containing ten song masters, including but not limited to recordings of the songs “Jonesy,” “I’m Ragged But Right,” “Open Pit Mine,” “I Can’t Change Over Night,” “Wrong Number,” and “Ship of Love.”

So the next question everyone has is if the public will ever get the opportunity to hear what’s on these master tapes. With the money that is potentially to be made by releasing the music commercially, the answer is that once all of the legal wrangling has taken place, it’s very likely the songs will be released in some capacity.

In truth, much of what is likely to be on the tapes is live studio renditions of stuff the public has already heard from George Jones before. Perhaps there’s an offhand chance of a song or two we haven’t heard, or maybe a cover song that there’s not a George Jones recording of already. Or who knows, maybe we’ll hit the jackpot, and there’s an unreleased album of mostly original songs sitting in the box, or maybe multiple of them. We’ll just have to wait and see. The truth is, in the age of streaming, depending on what the songs end up being, they may not be worth a million dollars anymore.

Currently still in the possession of a court appointed attorney, there is no current timetable of when the George Jones Drug Tapes might find their final resting place after all the necessary legal proceedings, and the public will finally be allowed to hear them.

But even more than the music itself, the story of the George Jones Drug Tapes is what makes them so intriguing—and arguably—so marketable, even if it brings to mind the most unsavory portions of the George Jones legacy. As much as music fans are wildly intrigued by stories such as these, they tell of the real life struggles many artists go through, wrestling with demons, and sometimes losing those fights with tragic results. The gift and grace of an artist’s creativity often comes with an incredible burden that too often manifests itself in things such as alcoholism and drug abuse. This was most certainly the case for George Jones.

On March 6th, 1999, George Jones was involved in a single car accident near his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He crashed his SUV into a bridge, and suffered numerous major injuries, including a lacerated liver, punctured lung, and internal bleeding. Jones spent 13 days in the hospital. Though the original claim by George Jones was that he was distracted by talking on his cell phone at the time of the crash, police found an open bottle of vodka in the vehicle.

Jones later pleaded guilty to drunk driving and an open container violation, and took responsibility for his actions in a press conference. His wife at the time, Nancy Jones, had been trying helplessly for 18 years to sober George Jones up. But every time, he would eventually relapse. After the 1999 accident though, George Jones swore off all alcohol and cigarettes for good, and remained sober all the way until he died in 2013.

It wasn’t just the wildness and the lows that made George Jones a country music hero to many at the time. It was also the way he persevered though his personal struggles, despite at times those struggles seeming to be insurmountable. George Jones let many down during his career, whether it was friends, family, business associates, or label owners, or ticket holders to shows George never showed up to. But eventually they forgave him. Because he possessed a voice like no other. And ultimately George Jones fought the devil, and won.


Sources


Knox News / Tennessean – “Drug Dealers Use George Jones Reel to Reel Recordings for Bail”

SavingCountryMusic.com – “Lawsuit Reveals Fresh Details on George Jones Drug Tapes”

UPI – George Jones Resisted Arrest And Tried To…

“GEORGE JONES – A Video Biography and Live Concert”

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones – Rich Kienzle – 2016

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