Thursday, March 8, 2012

March 10, 1979-The Night James Brown Played The Opry

I mentioned before that March was one of the more active months in the history of the Grand Ole Opry, and one of the more unusual events took place on March 10, 1979 when James Brown, at the invitation of Porter Wagoner, performed on the Grand Ole Opry.

Porter had met James several times over the years. It was during one of those visits that Porter told James, "You ought to come to the Grand Ole Opry." The response was, "I'd love to. You just invite me and I'll come." Porter was quoted as saying, "The Grand Ole Opry is made up of entertainment, not necessarily marvelous singers but entertainers. That's what the show is built on, and it has some comedy, it has some singing." Porter then went to Bud Wendell and Hal Durham and told them, "I think we could get worldwide attention, and once in a while that's helpful. Even if it's Coca-Cola, or even if its the Grand Ole Opry. It's like Old Man River, you can keep rolling along but it's nice to have a shot in the arm once in a while to make something exciting happen." Bud Wendell gave the ok and the date was set for Saturday March 10, 1979.

On March 6 the Memphis Press-Scimitar ran the headline across the top of the front page, "Invitation to Soul Singer James Brown Brings Disharmony to Grand Ole Opry." The story that followed featured a picture of Porter Wagoner. This story was based on a story that appeared in the Nashville Banner on March 5, written by Bill Hance. The following is from that article:

"I could throw up," said piano player Del Wood in the most eloquent of the Opry outbursts. "It's not an antiblack issue, don't get us wrong, it's not racial. She went on to praise DeFord Bailey, O.B. McClinton and Charley Pride. Since her own piano style was strongly ragtime (Del was the only female country act to have a Top 10 instrumental hit), she was no doubt sincere. "The next thing you know, they'll be doing the strip out there."

Jean Shepard was Jean Shepard: "The Grand Ole Opry is supposed to be a mainstay in country music-and it's fighting for its life. What's he going to sing, 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag'? She condemned the Opry management and said Opry fans weren't going to enjoy tuning in and getting James Brown. "And you can't tell me rock n' rollers are going to wait six hours to hear James Brown. It's a slap in the face to those people who drive thousands of miles to see the Opry and have to be subjected to James Brown. If Mr. Brown's on the first show, I'll appear on the second. If he's on both, I won't appear at all."

Justin Tubb said, "I don't understand it. None of us do. If it was Ray Charles, I'd be waiting to hug him when he came off the stage," recalling Ray's albums of country songs. Ben Smathers of the Smoky Mountain Cloggers square dance act said George D. Hay would be turning over in his grave. Of Opry stars, only Skeeter Davis spoke publicly in Porter's defense.

Opry management went into damage control, with Jerry Strobel pointing out that many other unexpected visitors had been on the Opry stage. He named Perry Como, President Nixon, Senator Robert Byrd, Paul McCartney, Carol Channing, Ann-Margaret and President Carter's daughter Amy. He did not mention opera star Helen Traubel, who was booed off the stage when Jimmy Dickens introduced her back in the 50s.

At the Opry on the night of James performance, some of those opposed organized a boycott. Opry officials were worried that the backstage area was going to be very empty so Bud Wendell began offering backstage passes to anyone who wanted to see James Brown. It worked as it was reported that over 300 people showed up backstage that night.

When James performed on the Opry that night, he used Porter's band and the Opry would not allow him to use his horn section. He performed a number of standard country songs including "Your Cheatin' Heart" "Georgia" and "Tennessee Waltz." He then kicked into "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and took off from there. He did the splits and the microphone tosses that he was famous for. The reponse was what you would have expected.

Roy Acuff was quoted as saying "I wish I could go out there and speak my mind, but I won't." Dolores Smiley said, "I drove to the Opry and heard James Brown over the car radio, and when I got there it was abuzz in the backstage area. I purposely arrived late. It sounded terrible on the radio. When I got backstage, everyone was outraged and upset. I thought it was funny."

It was reported that he broke all Opry records and performed for over 30 minutes. Porter would later say that he recorded it and it was actually 17 minutes. It just seemed longer. He did do an encore, but it was reported that he received what most Opry acts get and that was polite applause.

The following is the Opry line up and running order of the show from Saturday March 10, 1979, the night James Brown came to town:

1st show
6:30 Mrs Grissoms
Stonewall Jackson (host): Come On Home
Margo Smith: (?)
Stonewall Jackson: Me & You And A Dog Named Boo/Waterloo
6:45: Rudy's
Billy Walker (host): Cross The Brazos At Waco
Jerry Clower: Dogs Ate Boiled Okra/Fishing With Dynamite
Ernie Ashworth: Wichita Woman
Billy Walker: Lawyers
7:00: Shoney's
Porter Wagoner (host): Ole Slewfoot
Skeeter Davis: Georgia/I'll Fly Away
JAMES BROWN:You're Cheatin Heart/ Georgia/Tennessee Waltz/Papa's Got A Brand New Bag-Melody
Porter Wagoner: I'm Gonna Feed You Now
7:30: Standard Candy
Roy Acuff (host): Wabash Cannonball/Tennessee Central #9/Sunshine Special
Connie Smith: Once A Day/Back Up On The Mountain
Billy Grammer: Instrumental
Crook Brothers/Ralph Sloan Dancers: Gray Eagle
Roy Acuff: Jesus Will Outshine Them All
8:00: Martha White
Wilburn Brothers (host): What A Way To Go
Justin Tubb: (?)/What's Wrong With The Way That We're Doing It Now
Stu Phillips: Thank God She's Mine
Willis Brothers: Cimarron
Charlie Louvin: See The Big Man Cry
8:30: Stephens
Hank Snow (host): Merry Go Round Of Love
Jeanne Pruett: I Can't Help It/Many Tears Ago/Wild Side Of Life
Ray Pillow: Hungry Man's Dream
Bill Carlisle: Stopped By On My Way To The Show
Fruit Jar Drinkers: Cocklin Hen
Hank Snow: I Wish My Heart Could Talk To You

2nd show
9:30: Kelloggs
Billy Walker (host): Word Games
Skeeter Davis: Silver Thread & Golden Needles/The End Of The World
Billy Grammer: Allegheny Moon/Tennessee Waltz
Ernie Ashworth: Talk Back Trembling Lips
Billy Walker: Lawyers
10:00: Fender
Jerry Clower (host): Comedy
Margo Smith: Don't Break The Heart That Loves You/It Only Hurts For A Little While
10:15: Union 76
Roy Acuff (host): Once More
Stonewall Jackson: Come On Home
Harold Weakley: Today I Started Loving You Again
Roy Acuff: I'll Fly Away
10:30: Trailblazer
Charlie Louvin (host): I Don't Love You Anymore
Connie Smith: When God Dips his Love In My Heart
Willis Brothers: Bob
Charlie Louvin: All The Lies Are True
10:45: Beechnut
Ray Pillow (host): Hungry Man's Dream
Justin Tubb: You Nearly Lose Your Mind
Crook Brothers: Mississippi Sawyer
Tom T Hall: The Year That Clayton Delaney Died/I Love
11:00: Coca-Cola
Hank Snow (host): Hello, Love
Wilburn Brothers: Country Honey
Fruit Jar Drinkers: Hollow Poplar
Stu Phillips: Crystal Chandeliers
Kirk McGee: The World's Waiting For The Sunrise
Hank Snow: Mysterious Lady From St. Martinique
11:30: Acme
Marty Robbins (host): Don't Worry
Jeanne Pruett: Satin Sheets/San Antonio Rose
Bill Carlisle: Same Ol' Tale That The Crow Told Me/Rusty Old Halo
Marty Robbins: El Paso City/Tonight Carmen/Love Me/Muddy Water/Among My Souvenirs/To Get To You/You Gave Me A Mountain/The Performer/El Paso

Marty was on stage for over 45 minutes.
Porter and James did only the 1st show. Then they went to the Opryland Hotel for a party. As promised, Jean Shepard did not appear and as expected, Del Wood also did not perform. What was surprising was that Billy Grammer did. On an interesting note, Stevie Wonder performed on the Opry in September of that year, but there were no complaints about Stevie.

It is interesting that today, as many of us complain about the number of non-country performers playing on the Opry, this same issue has been going on since the day the Opry started. Even in the 1930s, George D Hay and Harry Stone were having a battle over "modern" acts becoming members and playing the show. There was the issue of drums and electric guitars with Ernest Tubb and Pee Wee King. It seems like the story keeps repeating itself and as the Opry marches on, the discussion and battle over what type of music should be played on the Opry continues.


  1. The discussion will indeed always go on. I think of the night Gary Morris sang an aria and Tom T. Hall, who used to matter to me, said it was probably the first time there had been grand opera on the Grand Ole Opry, and whatever you thought of it, it was better than rock and roll. I like some rock, but that covered it!

    I would like to think that, later, a couple of the members you mentioned--specifically Jean Shepard and Del Wood, and I yield to no one in my admiration for them as artists and as people--looked back and realized how ridiculous they sounded. But I fear not.

  2. I wrote a letter to 'Opry management in protest of Mr. Brown's appearance, and they wrote me back with a more civil response than I probably deserved. It was certainly an interesting night!
    I counted twenty acts on the early show. The 'Opry can have one totally off the wall guest every week if they'll bring back two and a half hour shows of that caliber.

  3. Fred here:

    I would agree that, especially in retrospect, the negative reaction by some at the Opry was over the top and even offensive. Like it or not, Jean Shepard, Del Wood, et al., shared a host's responsibility. A guest, having been invited, deserved better.

    At the same time, it's hard to see what Porter Wagoner was aiming at. James Brown had little to bring to country music, at the Opry or elsewhere, and vice versa.

  4. I think the thing to remember is that the James Brown appearance happened in 1979, and attitudes were a bit different back then. I'm not defending Jean or Del. We just have to remember that it was a different time.

  5. Oh, I agree. I just hope they later saw that they didn't exactly sound or look good on this one. I also recall Porter once listing his five greatest accomplishments, and this was one of them.

  6. Ben Smathers and The Stoney Mountain Cloggers.

  7. Wow. Just wow. I feel this is why country music fans were looked upon as corn pone isolationists for so long- the obsession with purity so comical it's bewildering. I was raised on country and bluegrass music and it has a deep part of my being, but never once thought it superior or inferior to any other form- and also believe that James Brown's rendition of "Tennessee Waltz" is as good as any out there. What I see- clearly- what Porter was doing was simply expanding the reach of country music, period. If different musical entities could convince their fans that country music (especially in 1979!)was worth the time and effort to be cherished and understood as great a musical art form as any other, that just meant more country music fans in the long run for those artists that need the attention. Jean Shepard and Del wood- whose artistry I ADORE- lacked foresight and enlightenment, which is why Porter Wagoner and his ilk were more the iconic, larger than life persona who saw years ahead of the more petty, localized attitudes that limit such expressions of diversity and elevated interactions. Roy Acuff need not worry about his place, but Brown's presence helped attract attention to- and legitimize- country music to so many who may never have given it a second thought, and that is why these things happen. As long as those involved adhere to the genre specifics ( I do believe he should have NOT done "Papa"- as crowd pleasing as it can be, this was still The Grand Ole' Opry- country music mecca- I think it always a delightful respite to include an outlier in these situations to keep it interestingly and evolving.