In March 1979, Godfather of Soul James Brown was in a Nashville recording studio to put the finishes touches on a disco-tinged tune called “It’s Too Funky in Here.” Those words, while not expressly spoken by anyone involved (that we know of), could also have applied to the other stop Brown made while in Music City that week, when Grand Ole Opry mainstay Porter Wagoner invited the Hardest Working Man in Show Business to perform on the Opry’s regular Saturday night show on March 10th.
While he was not the first non-country act to perform on the Opry, and wouldn’t be the last, Brown’s announced appearance caused an immediate media frenzy during which several Opry regulars expressed their disdain for the upcoming event.
“I could throw up,” the Nashville Banner reported piano player Del Wood saying at the time. “The next thing you know, they’ll be doing the strip out there.”
Although her assessment may have been over-exaggerated, Wood and many of her Opry contemporaries were probably not singing “I Feel Good” as they left the Opry House that night. During the 7 o’clock segment hosted by Wagoner, Brown followed a performance by Skeeter Davis, one of the few acts who showed support for his appearance. Davis had waged her own battles with the Opry a few years earlier, when she criticized the police for arresting a group of evangelists at a local mall and was suspended for her outspokenness.
Brown took the stage and began his performance with “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” followed by “Georgia,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and then a show-stopping rendition of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” While many of the complaints were that Brown had gone well over his allotted time — claiming the soul singer performed more than 30 minutes, Wagoner later said he had recorded it and that it lasted merely 17 minutes. The same night, country legend Marty Robbins also took the stage and was reported to have performed for more than 45 minutes.
Brown would later insist that he was a lifelong country music fan and that he had been “treated like a prodigal son” during his Opry appearance, considering it a high point of his entire career.
“I always have loved country music ever since I was a kid and listened to the radio in Augusta,” the Augusta Chronicle quoted Brown saying. “Country music really is just the white man’s blues.” Noting that his favorite artist was Little Jimmy Dickens and that he was also a fan of country legends Lefty Frizzell and Cowboy Copas, Brown added, “I love Minnie Pearl. We were on The Joey Bishop Show together. I also co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show one time when he had Johnny Cash as a guest.”
Interestingly, later in 1979, R&B-pop superstar Stevie Wonder performed on the Grand Ole Opry without incident.