Sherwood's Rules

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

There was testimony from Mickey that he had not received his fair split of the money; testimony from Sherwood that Mickey had put cash in his boot and then under the corn in his mother-in-law's freezer; an audit that found millions of dollars worth of T-shirts missing and unaccounted for; a management contract with Gilley so apparently forged that the judge described it as "original amateur hour"; and talk in the press from Sherwood about killing that judge.

The hick from Diboll didn't fare well in the big city. The jury awarded $9 million in damages to Mickey Gilley, and $8 million more just to punish Sherwood.

"For that no-good sumbitch to fuck me out of everything I had," Sherwood said, "how could he piss me off more?" Sherwood's first instinct was to grab for his gun -- "I'd shot many people for a lot less," he said -- but then a cop friend told him he was being watched, and that he would just have to let it go.

Sherwood filed for bankruptcy; his case was tossed out. He began shifting his property around on paper, shuffling papers better than he ever had. And when the courts began taking his property anyway, not even Sherwood could explain what happened after that.

He had been allowed to continue running Gilley's until a settlement was reached, but there were reports of theft at Gilley's, and then there was the burglary of the recording studio. Arriving just four minutes after the alarm sounded, the police found that thousands of dollars in sound equipment had already been disassembled and hauled away. The next day, when much of that was found destroyed in a Pasadena field, the judge ordered Gilley's to be shut down. On March 30, 1989, the cowboys were cleared out, and Gilley's went dark.

And then it began to glow.
"Gilley's Club fire is called arson," the Chronicle headline read on December 12, 1989. It was just a small fire.

"Fire labeled 'suspicious' guts Gilley's Club," the July 6, 1990, headline read. They blamed a kid.

"Gilley's finally bucks its legal hassles," said the September 13, 1990 paper. A settlement on the verdict left Sherwood his house. Nearly everything else was supposed to go to Mickey. The next day, the headline was, "Arson fire guts studio by Gilley's Club," and later, there would be fires in the Gilley's rodeo arena.

It was as though on that hot landscape, what had been Sherwood Cryer's property could not exist without him. When yet another club burned, the fire marshal asked Mickey, "Is there someone out there who doesn't like you?"

"Look," said Mickey, "how long you been here in Pasadena?"

Mickey hired bodyguards. He let them go when he realized he couldn't live his life wondering whether he would be breathing tomorrow. Still, every now and then, strange voices call him and threaten to burn down his house. Yeah, said Mickey, he's worried. "And everybody's worried for me, too."

He sat on the couch dressed in white pants and a blue sports shirt. He did not radiate star power. Where Sherwood was taciturn in coveralls, Mickey was giggly in golf clothes. Sherwood was a dealer, and Mickey was a climber. They were different kinds of rednecks, different kinds of opportunists, and it was easy to imagine how they would have gotten along, until the giggly one got uppity.

"I thought everything was gone after Gilley's, but it's crazier than ever," Mickey said, smiling. In Branson, Missouri, he sings his 17 number-one hits six days a week now, flying his airplane home for the seventh. His first theater was lost to fire in 1993, but the new one is even better, he said, and there's so much fire equipment in there, "you'd have to be a genius to burn it down." Next door is Gilley's Texas Cafe, and there's another in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Mickey's hoping to set up a country-western kind of Hard Rock Cafe, where he can sell his marinade, hot sauce and barbecue sauce. As for his Wild Bull Chili, "that was Sherwood's idea," said Mickey. "Yeah, I believe it was."

Without Sherwood, Mickey admitted, he might never have become a star. Without Sherwood, he wouldn't fear for his life. Thinking about that, Mickey said he sometimes wishes he'd never met him. "If I had someone to hold him," said Mickey, he'd like to sit down and talk with Sherwood, maybe give him a little credit and maybe take a little, too. If Sherwood made Mickey, well, Mickey helped make Gilley's. They made each other, and the accounts, as far as Mickey was concerned, were even. Mickey was sure that Sherwood has the T-shirt loot stuffed away somewhere, probably with all those Krugerrands he used to buy, those piles of silver coins he kept in the garage and all that money he must have saved living "like a bum." As for the riches that were to fall into Mickey's hands, it was mostly a paper victory, he said. When the lawyers finally caught up with Sherwood's property, what wasn't burned down had decades of back taxes due. Most of it was given up to the government.

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