Sherwood's Rules

Sherwood Cryer lost his redneck empire the same way he built it: in a tangle of lawyers, women and country music

By the late '60s, Mickey Gilley had been singing in Pasadena bars for years and years. He had begun to accept that he would never emerge from Pasadena, but the rednecks liked him, and at the time, Sherwood did, too. "Why not take a chance on the fucker?" Sherwood thought.

He had a place on Spencer Highway where he thought business might explode with the right performer. He asked Mickey to become his partner. When Mickey visited, his first suggestion called for a bulldozer. Then he said a roof would be nice and air-conditioning and an even split of the profits. Strangely charitable, Sherwood agreed. He remodeled and renamed the place, and when Mickey saw it, he praised Sherwood as the only businessman he'd ever met who kept his word. True to Sherwood's instincts, from the night the giant arrow lighted up in 1971, Gilley's was Pasadena's shitkicker paradise.

The petrochemical workers may have dreamed of country living, but if they were going to love cowgirls and live like cowboys, it was nice to do it in an air-conditioned saloon. The bull was fake, and the punching bag didn't punch back, but it was real when the boys attacked each other. Then there was blood, and hanks of hair on the floor like clumps of grass.

Sherwood protected this property like all the rest. If a man drank Schlitz, Sherwood learned that he was generally a peaceable type, but "them Lone Star people," he said, "you kept your eye on them because they wanted to be challenged." He and the 20 policemen he employed for security used force of their own to end the fights. Cowboys who spat on the floor were subject to blows. Sherwood chased down one poor soul who tried to steal a light fixture, and right there at the front door, according to record, Sherwood punched him in the head three times, kicked him in the head once, emptied a canister of Mace in his face and said, "I ought to kill you right there where you lay, you chickenshit little thief bastard!"

He liked to promote the club as a place for the whole family, and he wasn't happy when he heard Johnny Lee, the other main singer in the club, rehearsing the song, "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw?" Sherwood asked him politely never to sing it again, and when he sang it again, Sherwood said, he took Johnny into a corner of Gilley's and, with the butt of his .38, slapped him down.

"Hadn't somebody got to be the boss around the place?" said Sherwood. The next time Johnny got out of line, Sherwood ordered the off-duty cops to whip his ass.

It was never necessary to whip Mickey's ass, because he was very grateful to Sherwood. He was there one day when Sherwood encountered a debtor and slapped him down, way down, and then reported the fellow for disturbing the peace. Mickey never looked at Sherwood the same after that. Sherwood would ask him to come along somewhere, and Mickey would reply, "We aren't going to harm anyone, are we?"

Both Sherwood and Mickey admit they were paying DJs thousands of dollars to play Mickey's records. In time, Mickey became a big national star. Gilley's, in turn, became such a monstrous redneck success that it attracted a writer from a New York magazine who wrote an article about urban cowboys that convinced producers in California to make a movie about them. After Urban Cowboy was released, Mickey Gilley and Gilley's became so hot that everything just kind of flamed out.

Playing in Reno and Tahoe, Mickey thought he saw the way things ought to be in Pasadena. Or at least that the place could use some urinals instead of "old troughs like to water the cows." And carpet on the floors. Luxury dressing rooms. Maybe even valet parking.

As Sherwood put it, Mickey had "just got above his raising." Sherwood told him to shut up and sing. With a national reputation to protect, Mickey told Sherwood he wanted out. He wanted the buses and trucks for his road show, the Gilley's offshoot in Nashville, and his name off the club in Pasadena. Sherwood declined, and in 1987, Mickey took him to court.

Sherwood told the press that "Gilley's will be there when Mickey Gilley is pushing up daisies," but it didn't work out that way. In order to win, Mickey had resolved to expose everything about the club. As Mickey cried on the stand and autographed pictures off it, Sherwood sat gritting his teeth. When Sherwood was asked if he had ever shot anyone, he replied, yes sir, he had -- to protect his property. And when Johnny Lee and others pointed at Sherwood and swore he had slapped them down, Sherwood was baffled that not even his own lawyers were interested in why.

"Sir," he said later, "I never whipped anybody didn't need ass-whipping."
The trial in Houston was news across the country, but Cheri Sue, now grown and married, was busy with babies. People had always said nasty things about her father. She had never listened, so she didn't watch.

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