Of course that’s what the IRS tried to do back in the early ’90s when they went after the country music legend for what they claimed was $16.7 million in unpaid tax bills that he owed to Uncle Sam.
The trouble started for Willie all the way back in the early 1980s, when the IRS claimed that he owed $6 million for money that was hidden in tax shelters set up by his accountant. And after they did some digging, the government also claimed that he owed an additional $10 million in penalties and unpaid taxes going all the way back to the 1970s.
Willie and his team tried to work with the IRS and challenge the tax bill, but with no success.
So in August 1990, the IRS showed up at Willie’s door, which is pretty much the last thing anybody wants.
Federal agents seized Willie’s property in six different states, including his houses and land, his master tapes, his recording and touring equipment, his gold records, and even his clothes.
But there was one thing the IRS didn’t get their hands on: His iconic and beloved guitar, Trigger.
That’s because Willie suspected that the IRS was eventually going to come knocking, and gave Trigger to his daughter Lana to take to Maui for safekeeping.
The rest of his possessions, though, went up for auction.
But it didn’t go well.
The IRS tried to auction off a 44-acre ranch in San Marcos, Texas that he’d bought from the doctor who delivered him as a baby. But nobody would buy it.
After two failed auctions, the property was finally bought for the minimum bid: $203,840. And the lucky buyer? A farmer’s lobbying group, who Willie had previously helped through his Farm Aid benefit concert – who bought the house so they could sell it back to Willie.
Another property up for auction was the Pedernales Country Club, which also housed Willie’s studio where he had done much of his recording in the 1980s, including his Pancho & Lefty album with Merle Haggard. The IRS did manage to sell this one: To Darrell Royal, former University of Texas football coach and friend of none other than Willie Nelson.
But when the IRS learned that Royal had bought the property for safekeeping to return to Willie after his tax debt was paid off, the government canceled the sale to Royal and refunded his money.
When the club went back up for auction, they eventually did find a buyer in an investors’ group, but this time the recording studio was auctioned off separately. And it was bought by Freddy Fletcher – Willie Nelson’s nephew.
You see how this is going.
Well apparently the IRS saw how it was going too. And eventually they decided to stop fighting it.
A collection of Willie’s gold and platinum records, instruments, posters and other personal items were sold to the “Willie Nelson and Friends Showcase” for the low, low price of only $7,000. And the IRS, seeing the writing on the wall that they were never going to get their money by trying to sell off Willie’s property (at least not if his fans and the fine folks of Texas had anything to say about it), they went back to the negotiating table with Willie and his representatives.
Willie, for his part, remained surprisingly upbeat. At one point he even parked his bus outside of the IRS offices in Austin and, during breaks in their meetings, would go out and sign autographs for fans (including IRS employees themselves).
And finally, in 1993, Willie and the IRS settled their dispute for a little over half of what the government initially claimed that he owed, with Willie agreeing to pay $9 million, $3 million of which had already been paid.
One of the results of these negotiations, of course, was the infamous “IRS Tapes.” The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? double album, featuring acoustic recordings of both new and unreleased songs, was released in 1992 to help pay off some of his debt, and the IRS agreed to help promote the album to help Willie raise money.
He also went on TV to promote the album, but there was one small problem: The t-shirt he wore with the phone number to order the album had a non-existent phone number on it.
Eventually Willie would also enter into an agreement with Sony to distribute the record to stores, and through a profit-sharing agreement that included the IRS, the album would help Willie raise almost $4 million to go towards his tax bill.
Oh, and he also made a Taco Bell commercial to help him raise some cash too.
Willie also filed a lawsuit against his accounting firm that had set up the tax shelters, Price Waterhouse, and eventually settled for an undisclosed amount of money to be paid to the IRS towards his tax bill.
Reflecting on his battle with the IRS, Willie didn’t seem too bothered by the entire ordeal, telling Rolling Stone:
“Mentally it was a breeze.
They didn’t bother me, they didn’t come out and confiscate anything other than that first day, and they didn’t show up at every gig and demand money. I appreciated that. And we teamed up and put out a record.”
And he wasn’t even too upset that his belongings were auctioned off, calling them “just things, nothing that can’t be replaced.”
I guess you’re not too worried about your things when you know you have an army of adoring fans who are there to buy those things and get them back to you.
Because like the IRS learned: You don’t mess with Willie Nelson.