In the 1970s, James Brown and Porter Wagoner became friends. Wagoner was of course a major player in country music and so he managed to schedule the Godfather of Soul in the nation’s least friendly venue to his kind of music, the Grand Ole Opry. It shouldn’t have been so hostile, as country and soul musicians were borrowing from each other all the time during these years. But by the 1970s, the country music establishment self-identified with the politics of white backlash and social conservatism (it wasn’t actually true that Earl Scruggs was the only Nashville star who voted for McGovern but it was close enough) and its audience loved hearing Merle Haggard singing “The Fighting Side of Me,” even if Haggard may or may not have believed in the message. Country music of the period is full of one-off right-wing songs as everyone sought to take advantage of the culture wars.
James Brown, of course, was the opposite of everything the country music establishment stood for in the 1970s. He was a symbol of black nationalism, a man of flashy brashness that challenged the white supremacy of country music fans, a man playing at Zaire ’74 instead of the Grand Ole Opry’s Nixon rallies.
But Porter Wagoner didn’t care. He knew Brown was a great performer and felt that if country musicians and fans opened their minds, they would recognize how great he was in a county format. Thus, he managed to get Brown scheduled on the Grand Ole Opry in 1979. Sadly, it did not go well. Even before the performance, the Nashville establishment was angry.
“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.
Skeeter Davis, it should be noted, was pretty awesome.
The performance itself was not particularly well-received, in part because the Opry hamstrung Brown.
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.