Country music may have more of a squeaky-clean image than rock and rap, but there are many skeletons in the genre’s closet. From the requisite drugs and booze to domestic squabbles and even horse theft, country has its share of wild tales. Here’s the 10 most eye-popping.
There’s no shortage of folks who like to pay cheeky homage to Dolly Parton by donning their own wardrobe of many colors – the country legend inspires lookalike contests from her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee, all the way to California. Perhaps the most infamous of those occurred in Santa Monica. In a 2012 interview with ABC News’ Nightline about her 2012 memoir Dream More, Parton shares that she entered a Dolly Parton-themed drag queen contest – “I just over-exaggerated – made my beauty mark bigger, the eyes bigger, the hair bigger, everything,” she says – only to lose to another contestant. Quips the country queen: “I got the least applause.”
Johnny Paycheck clearly wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit on December 19th, 1985. While driving to Greenfield, Ohio, to visit his mother for the holidays, the country singer stopped at the North High Lounge for a quick drink. Inside the bar, he was recognized by a fan named Larry Wise, who jumped at the chance to speak with one of his idols. Paycheck was feeling testy from the drive, though, and the conversation quickly grew heated. When Wise invited the musician back to his place for a home-cooked meal of deer meat and turtle soup, a fed-up Paycheck drew his gun, reportedly roared, “Do you see me as some kind of country hick?” and fired a bullet at Wise, just grazing his scalp. Sentenced to nine years in jail, Paycheck served less than two before earning a pardon from Ohio governor Richard Celeste.
George Jones was in the middle of a multi-day bender when his second wife, Shirley Corley, left the house sometime during the late-Sixties, taking the couple’s car keys with her. If her plan was to force her hard-drinking hubby into sobriety, however, she should have hid the lawn mower, as well. Now the stuff of legend, a stranded and thirsty Jones fired up the mower and rode its 10-horsepower rotary engine all the way to Beaumont, Texas, where he replenished his poison at a local liquor store. Then he turned around and headed back, logging a total of 16 miles. “I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, I Lived to Tell it All. “It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.”
Security at the White House is certainly tight, but it’s no match for Willie Nelson. In a video interview with SiriusXM’s Sam Roberts, the country icon and known toker admitted to smoking a joint on the roof of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during Jimmy Carter’s administration. The anecdote originally comes from Nelson’s 1988 autobiography, Willie: An Autobiography, though Nelson elaborated on the tale in later interviews. When asked by Roberts if lighting a fat one on top of the White House made him feel like “a king,” he replied pragmatically: “No, I was wondering how the fuck I’m going to get down.”
Dying doesn’t get much more rock & roll than it did for alt-country godfather Gram Parsons. Or, rather, what happened after death, when the singer kicked the bucket at 26 from an apparent mix of alcohol and opiates inside a hotel room at Joshua Tree National Park. The cosmic cowboy had previously confided to his road manager, Phil Kaufman, that he wished to have his ashes spread at Joshua Tree. So Kaufman did what any real friend would do: He stole Parsons’ body and casket before it could be sent home to Louisiana, took it to the desert, doused it in gasoline and lit it on fire. The body, or what was left of it, was later returned to Parsons’ family, and Kaufman was fined $750 – but only for stealing the casket. There wasn’t a law in California against stealing corpses.
Elvis Presley may have been the King of Rock & Roll and one of the world’s biggest celebrities, but deep down he really wanted to be a police officer. It was more than a childhood dream, as he collected guns and badges well into adulthood, had a custom police uniform made for himself, and became an honorary deputy of the Denver Police Department, whose officers he had befriended and in turn showered with gifts. By the Seventies, Presley, in the midst of cutting some of his greatest country recordings, began to take law enforcement into his own hands, driving around Memphis and pulling over residents for traffic violations, with the aid of a police siren and rotating blue light that he had fitted to his Lincoln. The King would flash his badge and lecture the drivers on their infractions, then let them go – not with a citation, but with an autograph.
Billy Joe Shaver may be short a couple fingers from his lumber mill days, but he still proved trigger happy in 2007 when he shot a man in the face outside a bar near Waco, Texas. The fact that the “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” writer didn’t actually kill the man was but one of the incident’s many bizarre twists. Shaver was at the bar with an ex-wife when the man, Billy Bryant Coker, allegedly brandished a knife and ordered Shaver to meet him in the parking lot. Shaver, who later pleaded self-defense, shot Coker in his pickup truck, reportedly asking him, “Where do you want it?” The Texan unsuccessfully tried turning himself in to Austin police, who were unaware of his warrant, then played a show the same night after posting bail. Shaver was acquitted, with — who else? — Willie Nelson among his character witnesses.
Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, was also well-versed in gospel music, but one event in his personal life involving a bible proved troublesome for the Grand Ole Opry legend. On May 1st, 1989, the 77-year-old entertainer was arrested, charged with assault and battery after an ex-girlfriend alleged that during a visit to his home north of Nashville to retrieve personal items, Monroe struck her in the face with a bible. The woman claimed that she was attempting to get Monroe to swear on the Good Book that he had not been seeing other women during their time together, but the exchange quickly escalated. The woman alleged Monroe also knocked her down, kicked and choked her and twisted her arm. Ten days later, however, the charges against Monroe were dismissed and the “Uncle Pen” writer avoided jail time.
What began as horseplay turned into something litigious on June 3rd, 2000, when Kenny Chesney – minutes after wrapping up a performance at the George Strait Country Music Festival in upstate New York – swung himself into the saddle of a deputy’s police horse. He then trotted around the parking lot, amusing his tourmate, Tim McGraw, and ignoring the officer’s orders to halt and dismount. “When the deputy went to remove Chesney from the horse,” Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan told CMT several days later, “another deputy was going to assist [him]. McGraw came and jumped the second deputy from behind, wrapped one arm around his neck and was choking him.” A third officer eventually joined the fight, as did McGraw’s road manager, Mark Russo, resulting in a blur of fists and alleged injuries. Both Chesney and McGraw were arrested and detained for four hours, although a jury found them not guilty of their multiple charges one year later.
Tammy Wynette drenched her songs in heartache often rooted in reality. On October 4th, 1978, the country queen was allegedly abducted at gunpoint from a Nashville mall parking lot, claiming the masked gunman had beaten then abandoned her on a country road 80 miles south of town. Wynette’s bruises and fractured cheekbone were seen in graphic photos, but for some the details didn’t add up. Jackie Daly, one of the singer’s four daughters, alleged in her 2000 memoir that Wynette had confessed to her the kidnapping was faked to cover up a beating that her fifth husband, George Richey, had inflicted. Richey vehemently denied the charge. After Wynette’s death in 1998, her daughters, including Georgette (whose father was Wynette’s third husband, George Jones) sued Richey for wrongful death. After Richey requested the body be exhumed, the suit was settled in 2002. The facts surrounding the kidnapping remain a fascinating mystery.