This report by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, on the controversy surrounding Gibson Guitar Corp., somehow escaped my notice until now. Nashville-based Gibson is, for my money, one of the great American companies of the American century. In business since 1902, Gibson doesn’t just make products; it makes industrial art. I own just short of a handful of its wares — none vintage, but one most definitely a splurge for my musical budget.
When a Gibson factory in Nashville was raided in 2009 by the Justice Department on suspicion of having imported ebony wood from Madagascar — banned under the 1900 Lacey Act, as amended in 2008 — I emailed a prominent friendly acquaintance in the music biz to get his take. Though he’s a Democrat and passionate environmentalist, he said there was no reason for federal agents, armed and loaded for bear, to descend upon a guitar factory as if it were a meth-lab.
The case is (or was: more below) complicated, but I can understand why the company’s CEO, Henry Juscziewicz, freaked out about the raid. And who could blame him for accepting an invitation from the Speaker of the House to sit in his box for the president’s speech before a joint session of Congress? (Less thrilling: an appearance on Glenn Beck’s radio show.)
Put it this way: I don’t fault Juscziewicz for jealously guarding his company’s reputation.
But in this day and age you can’t involve yourself conspicuously in politics without being magnetically pulled toward one of the two ideological poles. One minute you’re playing the game, whipping up opposition to a disproportionate intrusion into your business. The next minute … well, let Mayer tell it:
Reached by telephone the other day, Sting, who has been active in rain-forest causes for decades (in recognition of his support, a species of Columbian tree frog, Dendropsophus stingi, has been named after him), said, “I would never play a Gibson.”
Ted Nugent, the gun-loving musician who has endorsed Mitt Romney, said that he would be happy to take a seat on Gibson’s hospitality bus. “What they did to Gibson is a runaway Eric Holder jihad on freedom,” he said. “I have thirty precious Gibson guitars onstage every night, and, if I didn’t use them before, I will now.”
Incidentally, this week the feds dropped their case against Gibson — because, as Andy Meek of Memphis Daily News reports, the company, er, changed its tune:
The deal Gibson Guitar Corp. and federal prosecutors said they reached this week to drop a criminal case against the Tennessee-based guitar maker represents a sharp reversal from the combative stance Gibson took publicly last year. Under the agreement announced Monday, Aug. 6, Gibson acknowledged some of its exotic wood imports violated environmental laws and agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty.
Gibson also agreed to forfeit claims to about $262,000 worth of wood seized by federal agents. The deal further provides for a community service payment of $50,000 by Gibson to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It will be used to promote the conservation, identification and propagation of protected tree species used in the musical instrument industry and the forests where those species are found.
I’m not savvy enough to know whether Gibson relented under the strain of a boot on its neck, or if it was self-servingly making friends on the right to cover its backside. But I’m sure glad that the company will no longer feature in a dodgeball game between Sting and Ted Nugent.