On Wednesday, August 24, federal agents and SWAT officers raided the Gibson factories in Memphis and Nashville. To an outsider, it might have looked like a drug bust. But in this case, the agents weren’t DEA or even FBI. They were Fish and Wildlife, and the contraband they were after wasn’t dope. It was wood.
This isn’t the first time that Gibson’s guitar shops have been raided. It happened last year, and it happened in 2009. That case, The United States of America vs. Ebony Wood in Various Forms, is still pending. At issue are allegations of purchases of black-market wood from protected forests, a charge that Gibson chairman Henry Juszkiewicz denies. Adding to the confusion is the Justice Department’s interpretation of an Indian statute stating if the same ebony wood had been finished by Indian (and not American) workers, that it would indeed be legal.
But the long arm of the law may reach downstream to musicians who play vintage axes carved from the fruits of the potentially illegal harvest. In the worst-case scenario, such owners may be required to provide provenance of exactly where certain woods were harvested and when they were made into guitar parts. We asked a handful of local Gibson and vintage guitar players if they wanted to make a statement. They did.
Joey Harris, Beat Farmers/Mentals:
“Sounds as if Gibson has been making enemies somewhere. My right-wing friends say attorney general Eric Holder and, therefore, Barack Obama, are personally responsible. I say, ‘Wha...?’”
Vinnie Cavarra, formerly of Assassin:
“I read about this a bit ago and was pretty shocked. I think any authority that has an issue with an instrument should have the burden of proof on their shoulders. At the very least, the law should be changed so that an owner of an instrument should not have to bear the responsibility of having to prove where every frickin’ piece of wood came from.”
Bob Ryan, California Rangers/Buffalo Brothers guitar salesman:
“All of the big companies have to follow all new, very rigid rules on shipping woods. We can’t send some guitars to Europe anymore, and it might be for reasons of just the exotic wood overlay on the peghead. But, I think Gibson has been dirty for a while, and the new management is not well liked.”
Lando Martinez plays a lefty SG:
“Are we mistreating the wood? Not to go off on a tangent, but, come on...we have bigger issues — unemployment and homelessness — than raiding guitar factories and shaking down musicians for their vintage gear. I bought my 1997 SG Custom used from a pawnshop, and I hope it’s made from illegal woods! Maybe that’s what gives me my bad-ass tone!”
Patrick Dennis, Wirepony/Truckee Brothers:
“Obviously, I want to keep the ’37 Gibson LC I’ve played for 25 years, and I hope to pass it on to some worthy grandkid someday. I like to think Woody Guthrie played it long ago in his efforts to kill some fascists. Not something I’ll lose sleep over yet, but I will definitely be watching developments as will my mates with many more high-ticket guitars on their walls.”
Barney Roach, Blitz Brothers:
“Gibson is nonunion. It could be the union looking for stuff like that to throw out and leverage them into becoming unionized. I don’t know that there’s any truth to that, but I heard it from a very credible source.”
Will Crain, writes “Of Note!” and owner of four Gibsons:
“I should have known better, but I got caught up in the controversy in a small way. Gibson sent out an email asking people to sign their petition to help make the Lacey Act unfair. I pointed out the typo on their Facebook page and criticized them for using inflammatory rhetoric. An earlier Gibson USA Facebook post referred to the feds’ “Gestapo-like tactics,” and I thought that was way out of line. A couple of people I don’t know tried to argue with me in the comments. That page is filled with Tea Partiers saying it’s about freedom.”
Robin Henkel, vintage blues guitarist:
“If environmental laws are intended to protect certain substances and forests, I can accept and support that, but I also think it is a misinterpretation of the spirit of the law to go after owners of old instruments that were built before these laws existed. If it gets to the point where we persecute musicians for owning these instruments, maybe we should just arrest the listeners as well.” ■