Country music is no stranger to drama, and that includes tussles with the law, labels, managers and fellow artists. Some legal battles you can see coming from a mile away, but some are truly shocking.
It’s not too rare for artists to feud with their labels, or sue over rights to music. It’s not even that strange when former business partners or bandmates go at it. But some cases are so bizarre, or the money amounts are so high, they seem hard to believe. Here are some of country music’s most shocking legal battles.
Willie Nelson may be one of the most successful country artists ever, but that doesn’t mean he’s exempt from the IRS’ watchful eye. In fact, in 1990, the star who seemingly had it all had very little after the IRS seized most of his assets to satisfy $16.7 million he owed in taxes.
Nelson hadn’t been particularly wise with his money, and his accounting firm actually hid a lot of it in a tax shelter. He later sued that firm and argued his IRS bill down to $6 million, but still didn’t have enough money to pay his debts. So, the IRS sold off just about everything to auction, except his guitar Trigger.
A group of farmers generously banded together to buy Nelson’s farm and return it to him as a sign of appreciation for his work with Farm Aid. Nelson also created an album called The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? to pay off the debts. It was an unusual ordeal, but Nelson was debt free by the end of 1993.
At one point in time, Curb Records was seen as an underdog indie label that shook up the foundations of Music Row. But the label soon became known for its poor handling of artists (they practically ended Merle Haggard’s career in the 1990s), and that reputation continues today.
In 2011, Curb Records sued Tim McGraw after he turned in his new album, Emotional Traffic, “too early.” A contract stipulation said McGraw must space his albums at least 18 months apart, which McGraw saw as a ploy to keep him under contract longer, as the new album would have fulfilled his final contractual obligations.
McGraw then countersued Curb, saying they were creating additional stipulations to keep him under contract for an extended period. A judge ruled in 2011 he was allowed to record with a different label while the proceedings occurred. McGraw released Two Lanes Of Freedom with Big Machine in 2013, causing Curb to argue that those songs actually belonged to them. A judge dismissed those claims. The lawsuit could still be re-opened at the state level, but McGraw has come out the victor so far.
This one was bizarre. John Rich (of Lonestar and Big & Rich fame) was sued by Jared Ashley, a former contestant on Nashville Star. Ashley accused Rich of hitting him in the face at Rich’s private club The Spot in downtown Nashville. Rich said no such thing happened and countersued for defamation.
Rich reportedly told Ashley to leave the club, as the two were not on good terms, largely due to Chris Sevier, who ran the independent label Ashley was signed to. Rich believed that Ashley and Sevier were trying to extort money from him through the incident, as Sevier and Rich had prior legal disagreements concerning song rights.
The charges against Rich were eventually thrown out, though he did have Sevier later arrested for stalking him. Sevier continuously attempted to contact Rich and sent him numerous emails. One even referenced Rich’s children and included a picture of Sevier half-naked, draped in an American flag and covered in blood — a promotional picture from Sevier’s old band.
Former American Idol winner Scotty McCreery found himself on the losing side of a legal dispute with his manager in 2014. McCreery hired Todd Cassetty in 2012, but never finalized a contract. They parted ways in 2013, and Cassetty alleged McCreery owed him money for his time working for the singer.
Cassetty said he was owed over half a million dollars, but McCreery said no way. Judy McCreery, Scotty’s mother and business affairs manager, was also a defendant in the suit for reportedly delaying payment to Cassetty. In an email, Scotty is quoted as telling Cassetty he would pay him industry standard 15%, but Cassetty said the McCreery’s only offered 2%.
The courts ultimately sided with Cassetty, but disagreed on the amount. McCreery was ordered to pay his former manager $239,000, and that was the end of it.
Well this is awkward. In 2010, Brad Paisley claimed that Sony Music improperly withheld $10 million in royalties and owed payments. That’s a serious chunk of change. There haven’t been a whole lot of updates on the suit, which is still pending, but Sony may actually owe Paisley even more money thanks to digital royalties.
Apparently, Sony had a clause in its contract which kept Paisley from seeing full accounting records from 2002 through 2006. Paisley claims it’s because the label was cooking the books and skimping on his payments. So why is it awkward? Paisley is still on Arista Nashville, a subsidiary of the folks he’s suing.
Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson may also be owed money for similar reasons from American Idol and 19 Music, the label started by show runner Simon Fuller. In separate but related lawsuits, the singers claim the label failed to pay them more than $10 million in royalties.
We all complain about awkward Thanksgiving conversations, but we’ve got nothing on the Rimes family. In 2000, LeAnn Rimes sued her dad and his co-manager for taking keeping nearly $8 million of her money from her breakout success as a teenager. She also claimed he signed an unfavorable contract with Curb Records in her name.
Rimes and her dad eventually settled out of court and reconciled 5 years later. Her massive success at a young age was tough on the family, and also resulted in her parents’ divorce. Her lawsuit against Curb was eventually thrown out, and Rimes left the label in 2014.
One of country’s truly shocking lawsuits, Porter Wagoner’s claims against Dolly Parton came at a time when the pair appeared to be best of friends. Wagoner has long received credit for kickstarting Parton’s career when he had her co-host his hit television show in 1967. When she left to pursue her own career in 1974, Wagoner might have taken it the wrong way.
Though he gave her his blessing, Wagoner eventually sued Parton for $3 million (in the 70s, remember) due to a breach of contract. The pair eventually settled out of court and reconciled, once again becoming good friends. Parton was at Wagoner’s bedside when he passed away in 2007.