George Jones will undoubtedly be remembered for his legendary hits like “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” but late in life he ventured into Alabama business, gambling and politics. His involvement is interesting considering his stature as one of the giants of country music.
Jones, who died Friday at 81, personally appeared at the State House to urge lawmakers to support a gambling bill, appeared in radio ads calling a local congressional candidate a liar, his name was heard on conversations secretly recorded by the FBI as part of a federal corruption investigation related to gambling, and a casino developer said he told a state lawmaker he would bring Jones to his auto dealership to buy a truck.
The Country Music Hall of Famer joined developer Ronnie Gilley’s team that worked to build Gilley’s own version of Branson, Mo., in south Alabama. Jones was the face and national spokesman for Country Crossing, a country music-themed entertainment complex in Houston County that failed. Gilley pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers to vote for gambling legislation.
Jones, whose name was mentioned multiple times in court and on wiretapped phone calls in a high-profile federal trial that Gilley testified in, was caught in the middle of the fallout over the state’s crackdown on electronic gambling.
Gilley’s development included electronic bingo and a variety of other entertainment options, including George Jones’s Possum Holler Bead and Breakfast, which was open at one point in the short-lived life of the development. Gilley said none of the celebrities involved with Country Crossing owned the businesses named after them, but they received royalties. And Jones was supposed to live nearby.
Jones also attended a January 2008 party thrown by Gilley at Country Crossing, where then-Attorney General Troy King was a featured guest, according to The Birmingham News.
Originally, Jones and some other country stars were supposed to be the face of selling the development to the public, interesting them and enticing them to visit.
After then-Gov. Bob Riley began to crackdown on electronic gambling, Jones, Randy Owen of Alabama, Tracy Lawrence and Darryl Worley joined the effort to urge lawmakers to pass legislation that would help ensure that Gilley could keep his casino open. Country Crossing included a bingo pavilion, which Gilley said was vital to funding the remainder of the project. The stars argued people should have the right to vote on the issue.
Jones, Marty Stuart, Worley and Lawrence appeared at the State House in March 2009 to urge lawmakers to pass the “Sweet Home Alabama” legislation. They also appeared in television ads urging the public to become involved. They said passing the legislation would help create destinations that would bring people to the state, helping economic development, and have venues for the artists to perform.
While Gilley admitted to the bribes and testified for the prosecution, he said using Jones, Owen, Worley, Lorrie Morgan and John Anderson was part of his legitimate effort to pass legislation in 2009.
The effort failed.
As Gilley and other operators grew desperate trying to pass the legislation, he increasingly used the musicians to persuade lawmakers to join the effort and pass the legislation.
Gilley, after pleading guilty, testified in the federal corruption trial against VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor, his lobbyists, and four state senators. None of the defendants on trial were found guilty.
Jones and the other musicians were never accused of any wrongdoing.
Gilley said during the trial that he told then-state Sen. Jim Preuitt, a Talladega Republican who was on trial, he would bring Jones to his Ford dealership to buy a truck. Gilley later said he was joking. There was never any indication Jones purchased a truck. Preuitt was found not guilty of the charges against him.
Lots of support from Nashville
In a conversation secretly recorded by the FBI, Gilley and his lobbyist Jarrod Massey talked about Jones and his wife attending the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Awards Banquet to support state Sen. Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals. Denton, also a singer, was being inducted into the Hall of Fame on March 25, 2010. Massey also pleaded guilty in the case.
Gilley said to tell the senator, if he voted for the legislation, that Jones would sing with him and that music executive James Stroud would produce it.
Jones and Owen were among those encouraging Denton, who was never charged in the case, to vote for the legislation and both, according to Gilley, attended the banquet because Denton was being honored.
Gilley told lobbyist Jennifer Pouncy, who also pleaded guilty in the case, to tell the senator “he has a lot of support coming from Nashville tonight.”
When asked in court why the country stars were reaching out to Denton, Pouncy said “they wanted him to vote ‘yes’ on the bill.”
Ready to spend
Gilley and a business partner discussed making payments of $50,000 to Jones in another conversation recorded by the FBI.
That partner, Billy Graham, said to Gilley, “When he calls you himself, he’s got something he is ready to purchase.”
Gilley said in court that “I have honored all contractual agreements with Mr. Jones in the past including that one.”
He also said, “If we didn’t make it on time, he would have called us.”
‘Plain old liar’
Jones also joined in Gilley’s 2008 fight against Republican state Rep. Jay Love, who was running for Congress at the time. Gilley and Love, a Montgomery businessman who was running for the 2nd Congressional District, sparred over gambling and whether Love approached Gilley for help funding his campaign.
Gilley funded radio ads featuring Jones calling Love a “plain old liar,” which had to have hurt Love running in a district in central and south Alabama, where country music is king.