Drugs, Planes, Bail: The Wild Story of George Jones’s Lost Recordings

Decades later, it remains something of a mystery how in 1966 George Jones and his band ended up at Nugget Studios, a backwater building just north of Nashville that advertised itself as a place for “country music recorded in the quiet of the country at country prices.”

Jones, a country music legend in the making, had slipped a bit since his hits “White Lightning” and “She Thinks I Still Care,” and he was known to disappear on marathon benders. But he was still a major attraction, popular enough to fill honky tonks and auditoriums between Texas and New York.

Over many hours, Jones and his band churned out dozens of songs — his own hits and others by his idol, Hank Williams. One peppy number, “Ship of Love,” was something Jones had co-written with a friend, Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery, and Johnny Paycheck, who sang harmony and played bass with the band.

All were recorded under contract to a company partly owned by a little-known promoter and producer, Donald Gilbreth, who down the road would become better known for the things he did wrong than for the things he did right.

When the session was over, though, the tapes all but vanished, surfacing only briefly in the early 1980s when Gilbreth and some partners tried unsuccessfully to turn them into albums.

If the path of the tapes at this juncture was already odd, their journey from that point forward was nothing short of bizarre.

George Jones, a few years after his recording session at Nugget Studios.Credit…Gems/Redferns, via Getty Images

It turned out that, in addition to dabbling in the music business, Gilbreth and a partner, David L. Snoddy, were major narcotics traffickers, and in 1984, they used the tapes to keep themselves out of prison. Convicted on drug charges, they persuaded an open-minded judge in Louisiana to accept the tapes as collateral to help satisfy their $1 million bail, while they appealed.

But both men were arrested soon again and ended up in prison. At that point, the court returned some of the tapes, which were apparently sold to pay their legal bills. Other tapes, though, containing 40 songs, were mistakenly left behind and lay forgotten in a court-system storage vault until eight years ago, when a clerk stumbled upon them during a routine audit.

Now Snoddy and the estate of Gilbreth, who died in 2005, are trying to market the tapes, hoping to exhume and showcase the music made at the Nugget 55 years ago. Their plan is being actively opposed by Jones’s two sons, who say they own the rights to their father’s music.

“They had no licenses for any of the compositions,” said Ramona DeSalvo, the Nashville-based lawyer for the Jones brothers, “and they have to get permission from my clients. The odds of that occurring are fairly slim.”

The lawyer for the Gilbreth estate, Sam Miller, insists no permissions are needed and remains undeterred.

“We own the tapes,” he said. “And we intend to sell the tapes.”

The local tax card for the Nugget Studios building in Goodlettsville, Tenn. The building is no longer there.

For all the antagonism the recordings have stirred up, no one is sure the eight brittle reel-to-reels will survive an effort to convert them into digital recordings. No one has played them in decades, not even the judge who accepted them as collateral, who said in a ruling that he had been told “these tapes will be irreparably erased if they are permitted to come in contact with any magnetic or electric object or device.”

But most of those involved in the dispute agree it would be historically significant, and likely profitable, to rescue the session from obscurity.

“This is about as pure country as you can get, if what any of those people said was true of what’s embodied on those tapes,” DeSalvo said.

A Star Who Didn’t Hide His Flaws

Part of Jones’s charm was his candor and willingness to acknowledge his missteps. Credit…Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

Before he died in 2013, Jones, known to his fans as “Possum,” had long reigned over country music — a Grammy winner beloved for his bad-boy behavior and his folksy, “I’m just talkin’ to you” ballads. An alcoholic who sobered up late in life, Jones promoted himself as a hard-drinking man. In 1996, he went so far as to make a music video to memorialize the time he rode his lawn mower to the liquor store after his wife hid the car keys. And he titled one song “No Show Jones,” a reference to the nickname he had earned for canceling so many of his performances.

But he showed up for the recording session at the Nugget, a low-slung building that once sat at the end of a gravel road in Goodlettsville, Tenn.

“It could’ve been someone’s barn turned into a studio,” recalled the country singer-songwriter Melba Montgomery, who recorded there and sang duets with Jones early in her career.

The recordings were made under contract to Jimidon Enterprises, a partnership of Gilbreth and Jones’s road manager, Jimmy Klein, according to a document Jones signed. The contract talked of paying $6,000 to record 130 songs to be used for “radio shows.” Jimidon would own the rights, according to the contract; Jones’s sons have disputed its legitimacy.

A scene from the video for “Honky Tonk Song,” in which Jones recreated his trip to a liquor store on his lawn mower.

Gilbreth had met Jones several years earlier and worked with him as a guitarist and promoter, according to an interview Gilbreth gave years later to The Paris Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper in Tennessee.

Gilbreth and Snoddy had met in 1979 and soon became friends. Snoddy said in response to questions emailed to his lawyer that they shared an interest in bowling and go-kart sales. Their haunt became the Fountain Lanes, a bowling alley in Alabama that Gilbreth managed and Jones often visited. By the 1980s, Gilbreth and Snoddy also jointly operated a slew of business ventures. Vending machines. Real estate development. Construction.

And they leased tour buses at different times to Jones as well as to another country star, Loretta Lynn.

Drug Suppliers to the Southern States

By 1982, though, Gilbreth and Snoddy were also in the drug business. Eventually they would be charged with being part of crews that trafficked marijuana and imported Colombian cocaine into Southern states on single-engine planes, including one owned by Snoddy.

“They agreed to be transportation for our cocaine smuggling thing,” said Robert Chapman Dickerson, a pilot who turned state’s witness against them in 1986 (and has claimed C.I.A. work in his past), in an interview.

At times, Dickerson said, the drugs were hidden on tour buses Gilbreth and Snoddy leased to country stars.

Police and prosecutors suspected the same thing, according to court documents. But in an email, a lawyer for Snoddy, Al Robert Jr., denied his client ever used the buses to transport narcotics. “The buses,” he said, “were leased and operated by the musicians and were outside the control of Mr. Snoddy and Mr. Gilbreth.”

Authorities said that a plane owned by David L. Snoddy had been involved in the distribution of drugs.

At the time, Jones was riding a wave of renewed interest in his music. Recently divorced from another country legend, Tammy Wynette, and disconsolate, he watched perhaps his greatest hit, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” ascend the country charts in 1980.

His interest in alcohol and cocaine rose as well. As Jones described in his autobiography, “I Lived to Tell It All,”people who owed him money sometimes settled their debts with the drug.

He had also begun hearing, and speaking in, voices, during conversations that included himself, a duck and an old man. “They had personalities and passionate convictions of their own,” he wrote.

Gerald Murray, who managed Jones from 1981 to 1983, said he remembered the voices and how easily Jones could be manipulated by others, especially if they could keep him high.

“Being on tour was babysitting the king of country music,” Murray added. “He was into something all the time.”

Beyond leasing a bus to Jones, Gilbreth and Snoddy wound up running his merchandise sales — caps, T-shirts, bumper stickers — which Murray said could draw $10,000 in a night. Snoddy has testified that he and Gilbreth ran the sales for three years and split the receipts with Jones and the band.

By late 1982, Gilbreth had also assumed Klein’s interest in the tapes and brought Snoddy on as a partner. The duo attempted with others to market some of the Hank Williams covers that Jones had recorded at the Nugget. But that plan had yet to take off a year later when Gilbreth and Snoddy were charged with plotting to buy 42,000 pounds of marijuana. One of the men they had been negotiating with was not, it turned out, a drug dealer, but an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The brittle nature of the tapes is made clear on a envelope used to package them for the federal court. Credit…Aaron Hardin for The New York Times

Snoddy and Gilbreth cleared their initial $250,000 bonds by putting up a grab-bag of real estate. But after they were convicted, their bond was doubled, and they looked to the Jones tapes for relief. Gilbreth submitted appraisals suggesting the tapes were worth more than the $1 million, and the men were released while their convictions were appealed.

(Their lawyer would argue during an unsuccessful appeal that the undercover D.E.A. agent who had set them up was corrupt.)

With their freedom secured by the tapes, the two men were allowed to make court-authorized trips, and Snoddy asked to travel far and wide, including visits to Las Vegas and the Bahamas. But in 1986 they were arrested again and charged with being part of a ring linked to the Medellin cartel that the authorities said had imported $1 billion worth of cocaine from Colombia.

In one instance, investigators had tracked a Cessna owned by Snoddy as it flew over the Gulf of Mexico with nearly 100 kilos of the drug. A chase ensued, and packages of cocaine were tossed from the plane over Southern states until it landed in Collegedale, Tenn., under cover of night. Investigators later seized the plane, but the pilot had absconded and was never caught. (His disappearance was featured on an episode of “America’s Most Wanted.”)

This time, there would be no bond for Gilbreth and Snoddy. They were jailed in Georgia while awaiting trial. Their bond from the previous drug case was canceled, and the tapes were released back to their lawyer, Michael Fawer.

He signed a receipt in September 1986 indicating he had picked them up. In an interview, Fawer said that, at the direction of Gilbreth and Snoddy, he then sold the recordings to offset their legal bills for $28,000, a pittance compared to what the tapes had been said to be worth.

It would be nearly three decades until officials discovered they hadn’t given Fawer all the tapes. Snoddy testified in 2018 that they “didn’t realize that the judge’s clerk had actually overlooked some.”

In 1987, though, both men, now back in prison, were convicted in the cocaine case. Gilbreth was freed in 1992, after testifying against a cartel member. Snoddy was released in 1993, got involved in some more trouble and finally emerged from prison in 2015.

While Snoddy was incarcerated there had been a surprising development. In 2014 the court in Louisiana had found some of the Jones tapes that had been put up as collateral in the case 30 years earlier. They were sitting in a bank vault that the court used for storage.

Old Recordings That May Have a Future

The court released the tapes to Gilbreth’s estate because only Gilbreth, not Snoddy, had been listed as their owner when they were put up as collateral for both men. Gilbreth died in Tennessee without a will, so a lawyer, Dwayne D. Maddox III, was assigned by a court there as the administrator of his estate. He retrieved the tapes from Louisiana and placed them in a Tennessee bank vault. No one has played them since they were rediscovered.

Because Snoddy’s joint ownership of the tapes had not been written down, he had to go to court in 2018 to successfully assert his claim. Two Gilbreth relatives, his widow and a stepson from an earlier marriage, also asserted ownership rights, but they have not produced the necessary paperwork to support their claims.

Two years ago, Jones’s sons learned of the existence of the tapes, when the Knoxville News Sentinel reported their sudden reappearance and the brothers saw a follow-up to that story on a country music website. They sued Snoddy and the Gilbreth estate, challenging their ownership, licensing and any rights to profit from collections created from the tapes. Among other issues, the Joneses argued that the 1966 contract was “suspect,” and that Snoddy and Gilbreth had never secured proper rights to the tapes.

Even if the contract were valid, the brothers’ court papers argued, “the language limits the use of the master sound recordings for ‘use on radio shows.’”

Lawyers for Snoddy and the Gilbreth estate have argued that the brothers did not inherit any ownership interest in the tapes and that the 1966 contract is clear in its transfer of all rights to Gilbreth’s company, Jimidon, which had hired Jones to record at the Nugget.

The brothers’ suit against Snoddy and the estate was dismissed last April by a federal court in Tennessee, which concluded it lacked jurisdiction.

A statement on stationery from the bowling alley Gilbreth managed, in which he and a partner in the tapes attested to the history of the recordings.

Cassandra Spangler, a music and entertainment lawyer who reviewed the contract for The Times, said it did appear to award certain rights to Jimidon. “The 1966 recording agreement does not provide any royalties to be paid to George Jones,” Spangler said.

DeSalvo, the lawyer for the Jones brothers, said that if Snoddy and the Gilbreth estate continue to pursue efforts to sell the tapes without their permission, her clients will work to block the publishing of any of the songs written or co-written by Jones.

“They don’t have any evidence that they own them, that they ever have proper title to them,” she said.

Lawyers for Snoddy and the Gilbreth estate clearly disagree. But even if everyone could agree on converting the very old tapes into new products for country fans, just which of Gilbreth’s relatives might benefit remains unclear.

Maddox said that in addition to Gilbreth’s former wife and stepson, he is aware of other possible heirs.

“We haven’t attempted to contact them to tell them, ‘We have these tapes, and they may be worth a million dollars,’” Maddox said. His reasoning? Despite the court cases and drama, he acknowledged there is a chance the tapes hold little more than dust.

“If they have no value,” he said, “there’s no need in getting them all upset.”

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