American music icon Jerry Lee Lewis passed away on October 28th, 2022 at his home in Nesbit, Mississippi, known affectionately as The Lewis Ranch, mere days after being formally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Now just a few months later, the heirs of Jerry Lee Lewis are in a dispute with the heirs of Jerry Lee’s former manager about who owns The Lewis Ranch, and what should be done with it, with the former manager’s camp looking to sell the property. In recent days, both sides have released fiery statements claiming rightful ownership of the property, with fans of Jerry Lee Lewis caught in the crossfire, and wondering who is in the right. Let’s take a deeper look.
The Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch is located at 1595 Malone Road in Nesbit, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, Tennessee. The 30-acre property includes the home of Jerry Lee Lewis, a stocked lake, two ponds, a self-contained apartment, and a swimming pool styled like a grand piano. It was Jerry Lee Lewis’s primary residence, and where he passed away with his wife Judith by his side.
Built in 1967, the property includes six bedrooms, and is 4,500 square feet total. Though it’s a private residence, the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch is also considered a historically significant musical landmark, and guided hour-long tours of the property have been offered to the public, and Jerry Lee sometimes meeting tour guests. The Lewis Ranch was Jerry Lee’s Graceland.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Country Music Hall of Famer who passed away on October 28th, 2022 at the age of 87.
Cecil Harrelson – Long time road manager, sound engineer, songwriter, and close friend of Jerry Lee Lewis who passed away in 2013 at the age of 78. He was also the one-time husband of Jerry Lee’s sister and common touring partner, Linda Gail Lewis. Harrelson has over 16 composer credits on Jerry Lee Lewis tracks, as well as a few with Conway Twitty.
Jerry Lee Lewis III – The son of Jerry Lee Lewis, born in 1987 during Jerry Lee’s sixth marriage to Kerri McCarver. Though his name includes “III,” he is not a grandson, but a direct son. Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. died in 1973 at the age of 19 in an automobile accident. Jerry Lee Lewis III currently lives at the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch with his family, including two sons Mason Kidd Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis IV.
Cecil Harrelson Jr. – The son and heir of Cecil Harrelson who claims that he owns the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch. He announced the intended sale of the property on a website published at the beginning of 2023.
Jerry Lee Lewis was famous for many things, including his number of ex-wives, and his battles with the IRS. Lewis had seven wives total, which each vying to take a piece of his wealthy estate as they parted.
In 1979, the IRS seized multiple automobiles, five motorcycles, a tractor, jewelry, musical instruments, home entertainment goods, and firearms to resolve a $274,000 tax debt for Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1984, the IRS came after Lewis again, seizing more items from the Nesbit, Mississippi ranch, though he was found innocent of tax evasion and avoided criminal charges. In 1988 when Jerry Lee filed for bankruptcy, it was in part to alleviate a $2 million debt owed to the IRS. Lewis also moved to Ireland in 1993, allegedly to avoid further tax problems that were ultimately resolved, facilitating his return to the United States and The Lewis Ranch in 1997.
Throughout all of these issues with the IRS, the government was unable to touch the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch because instead of putting the property in his name, Lewis put the property in a life trust when it was purchased in the early 70s under the name of Cecil Harrelson—Jerry Lee’s close personal friend and road manager at the time. The quote attributed to Jerry Lee states that he didn’t want the property to fall into the hands of “…the government or no f*****g whores.”
It is said that Cecil Harrelson paid for Jerry Lee’s very first studio session in 1952, before Lewis began working with Sun Studios. And when Jerry Lee Lewis got in trouble for marrying his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown and his career went on the skids, Cecil Harrelson was one of the few people who stood by him and helped him through the turmoil.
Neither party claiming ownership of the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch disputes that Cecil Harrelson was placed in the ownership of the property to keep it out of the reach of the IRS or the ex-wives. Where the dispute arises is why. In a statement released by Cecil Harrelson Jr., he says his father never wanted or requested the property be put in his name, and initially thought it was a bad idea before signing the paperwork through Jerry Lee Lewis Enterprises.
Harrelson Jr. also says that his father was pursued by individuals looking for stories for tell-all books and other things that could be disparaging to Jerry Lee Lewis, but he never talked, protecting Jerry Lee until the end.
According to the niece of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mary-Jean Lewis—who is the daughter of Cecil Harrelson and Linda Gail Lewis—the house was payment to her father in lieu of wages he would have earned over the years for services.
In an interview with the Daily Record in Scotland in 2015, Mary-Jean Lewis said, “On my dad’s death, Jerry involved lawyers and things were said to suggest my father hadn’t behaved properly … After he died, they said things about my dad for their own reasons to try to get personal gain out of it and that broke my heart because my dad deserved better … I don’t know why. I think they were trying to sort out financial stuff and my dad’s estate and I don’t think they understood the agreement my dad and Jerry had over the property.”
However, according to Jerry Lee Lewis III and the Jerry Lee Lewis estate, the Lewis Ranch was put in Cecil Harrelson’s name to make sure it would never fall out of the hands of Jerry Lee Lewis’s family. In a statement published on Sunday, January 8th, the estate says,
The Lewis Ranch is and was Jerry Lee Lewis’ home. Any friend or family member of Jerry Lee’s knew it was his wish that it remain in the Lewis Family and not be sold off. We’re glad that it’s been acknowledged that any Life Estate was established to protect Jerry Lee Lewis from possible Government Asset Forfeiture, losing it in a divorce, etc., but now, since none of that is a concern it’s time to put it back how it belongs – in the Lewis family.
Jerry Lee Lewis III also said on social media,
When I first heard The Ranch was up for sale I was at work. Immediately after, anyone I ran into began asking me why I was selling my father’s home? As you can imagine living in a small town in Mississippi that news travels fast. I was devastated. My entire life my dad would tell me how one day I’d raise my children here at the Ranch like he was doing then. Like I am doing now. I spent all of my formative years here and I want them to do the same. Thank you for acknowledging that anything done was to protect my father and his interests. I can only ask that you do the same.
Further complicating matters:
According to the Cecil Harrelson Jr., 1/3rd of the Jerry Lee Lewis ranch isn’t owned by him, nor the Jerry Lee Lewis estate, but the heirs of a law firm called Barnes, Jones, & Warren. In Harrelson Jr.’s statement released about the dispute, he states:
Cecil Harrelson continued to protect Jerry Lee Lewis and the property, when a girlfriend forged a quit claim document with Cecil Harrelson’s name. Cecil Harrelson showed great compassion and restraint (which would not surprise anyone who knew him). Rather than pressing criminal charges that would have had serious implications for Jerry Lee Lewis, Cecil Harrelson surrendered one third of the estate to a law firm to reverse the action in civil proceedings rather than prosecuting those involved. This information has been known throughout the Jerry Lee Lewis inner circle for many years and did not come as a surprise to ANYONE involved.
This means there is potentially a 3rd party involved with ownership of 1/3rd of the property.
Nobody disputes that Cecil Harrelson’s name was used to protect the property from being sold or liquidated out from under the Jerry Lee Lewis estate during his life, but the potential sale of the property by Cecil Harrelson Jr. could result in that very conclusion after his death.
Amid a sale, the property could be purchased by a private party and cordoned off from the public and the family forever. It could be bulldozed and developed. It could also be preserved as a museum similar to Graceland. But that would be up to the new owner, not the estate of Jerry Lee Lewis.
It’s also important to underscore that it appears that the property is not officially up for sale at the moment. Cecil Harrelson Jr. has just communicated his intent to sell the property. There are probably also open legal disputes among the respective parties, and with the 3rd party of the heirs to the lawyers also needing to be resolved. Due to this, the property may also run the risk of being liquidated via court order, and nobody walking away with control over the fate of the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch, similar to what we saw with Conway Twitty’s Twitty City, which ultimately was shut down and sold off amid an estate dispute.
The Jerry Lee Lewis Estate isn’t just valued by the respective parties who have claim over it. It is a musically significant historical landmark and tourist destination whose appeal for preservation spans from rock and roll to country, to across the United States and world. Whomever ends up owning it or coming out on top, keeping the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis alive through the Lewis Ranch is what his fans would most want.
Stay tuned for further developments on the potential sale of the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch.