One of Nashville's emblematic companies, Gibson Guitar, has been under a cloud of suspicion for more than a year. It has to do with wood and a new twist on an old law.
Gibson has been quiet in the 14 months since armed agents raided the company, seizing guitars and parts the government said were made of rare wood from Madagascar - wood that may have been cut and shipped illegally.
Gibson said a trip to Madagascar launched a world of trouble. At the invitation of Greenpeace, seven top guitar companies traveled to Madagascar. The mission was to convince the people and the government not to cut exotic trees faster than they can grow back, that the best way to get the most for their valuable, unique wood was to set up a certifiable system to harvest and sell it.
A year later, a shipment of Madagascar ebony and rosewood arrived in Nashville. Suddenly, Gibson and their representative were facing off with federal agents.
"They were SWAT guys, you know, with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests, and they were pretty mean-looking guys," said Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. "Now the government says they're going to put him in jail for five years, and you know that's a little severe. The guy didn't do anything except go on this trip. He's a key figure working on certification, done it for years."
So what did Gibson do wrong? It depends on who you ask.
"The only thing which is of significance here is that there has been no legal cutting of these woods in Madagascar since 2006," said Frank Hawkins of Conservation International. "These are people who are being paid very small amounts of money. They aren't earning anything like what the wood is worth, and they're doing it in national parks, where it's illegal. ... Ultimately, the impact of this will be that there won't be any more wood in Madagascar or anywhere else, come to that."
Gibson has now become the first company in the world to be investigated, though not yet charged, with violating new provisions of a 100-year-old law called the Lacy Act. It says a plant can't be taken or a tree cut in another country against its own laws, and secondly, that illegal plant can't be taken into the United States.
But was the wood found at Gibson cut or traded illegally?
"Historically and currently, the laws of Madagascar have allowed for the exportation of ebony and rosewood in certain finished forms, fingerboards being one," said Bruce Mitchell, Gibson's attorney.
Guitar components called fingerboards were taken in the raid. The inlay and fret lines were added in Nashville, but Gibson said even what appeared to be bare pieces were not unfinished.
"Finished isn't an English dictionary term; it's a legal term in Madagascar. It's defined, and the law specifically defines a fingerboard blank as a finished good," said Juszkiewicz. "It's not illegal. It's not illegal under Madagascar law. You can't argue with the facts."
A number of guitars can be found on the market that boast more than just Madagascar fingerboards.
Martin's Eric Clapton model rolled out in 2009 with Madagascar rosewood on the back and sides. It's the same for the Linda Ronstadt and Roseanne Cash signature models.
All limited to a few hundred, Martin said it's using the wood it has carefully stockpiled and, like Gibson, no longer buys from Madagascar.
"Yeah, I feel we're being set up," said Juszkiewicz. "As the only company that's been sort of leading certification and very actively involved in the area, compared to all our, you know, competitors, why they would pick us on this issue? Factually, other companies in our industry buy wood from Madagascar; none of them have been investigated."
The US attorney's office declined Channel 4's request for an interview. But environmental groups have told Channel 4 that Gibson's middle man, a German music wood supplier, may have dealt with a cutter in Madagascar who has been criminally charged.
"That's not part of the Lacy Act," said Juszkiewicz. "The law doesn't say, 'Don't deal with bad guys.' What the law says is 'you have to do everything legally.'"
As for Gibson's seized 2009 shipment, can it be proven the ebony and rosewood had been freshly cut?
"Well, look at it this way: The fact that logging, cutting trees in Madagascar has been illegal since 2006. That's an easy piece of information to acquire," said Hawkins. "I think guitar players can contribute to a positive outcome by being more insistent that they're buying the right product."
"I'm, without question, comfortable we've done everything proper, and I think people will understand that in the end," said Mitchell.
Both Taylor and Martin guitars said they use wood from Madagascar on very limited numbers of custom guitars. But it's wood they said they've stockpiled, and when it's gone, it's gone.
Both companies and Gibson said they have stopped buying wood from Madagascar.
This story has been reprinted from the Nashville News Channel 4 website.