20 Surprising Famous Guests of the Grand Ole Opry
From barn dance musicians to bluegrass virtuosos to modern country megastars, many of the world’s greatest performers have stepped foot on the Grand Ole Opry stage, but what many people don’t realize is that a number of well-known faces beyond the country music community have made Opry debuts of their own.
By Bayley Renovich
1. Numerous U.S. presidents have paid visits to the Opry, each leaving a lasting mark on the show’s history. President Richard Nixon was the first to do so in 1974 during the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House. He played “Happy Birthday” for his wife and “God Bless America” for the audience on the piano, making him the only president to actually perform on the show. President Nixon was joined on stage by Roy Acuff, who was not only a master of the fiddle but also the yo-yo. Acuff gave Nixon a quick yo-yo lesson, but the president had some trouble learning the ropes. Nixon quipped, “I will stay here and try to learn how to use the yo-yo; you go up and be president, Roy.”
2. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter held a town hall-style meeting at the Grand Ole Opry House when running for re-election. A longtime politician with Georgia roots, he opened his speech by saying, “It is really good to be back down home. You probably think I came down here to campaign for president, but I really came down here to hear Bill Monroe and his band.” He recalled how he had long dreamed of standing on the Grand Ole Opry stage — he just never would’ve thought that being able to do so would first require becoming commander in chief.
3. President Ronald Reagan was next to visit on Sept. 13, 1984. He stopped by the Opry to help celebrate Acuff’s 81st birthday. There, he campaigned for his second term as president and praised the life and lyrics of Mr. Acuff.
4. Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush were big fans of the Opry. The couple showed their love for country music by enjoying multiple visits to the Opry while serving in office. Their passion for the show is immortalized in a letter written by the president on Air Force Two stationery, in which he thanked Minnie Pearl for the hospitality she showed them during one of their famed visits.
5. President George W. Bush was the most recent president to visit. Just one day after giving his fifth State of the Union address, President Bush gave a speech at the Opry. At this gathering, the president was greeted on stage by Opry group Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers.
6. During an extended stay in Nashville, music legend and former member of The Beatles, Paul McCartney, made his first appearance at the Opry. On June 16, 1974, McCartney and his wife, Linda, watched the third annual Grand Masters Fiddling Contest from the audience. Afterward, they spent time backstage with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. It was the final show that Parton and Wagoner were billed together as a duet before Parton pursued a solo career. McCartney returned to the Opry again just 12 days later, where he was introduced to the audience by Roy Acuff. He did not perform, but he did mingle backstage with various artists, including Chet Atkins.
7. In 1979, soul singer James Brown made his legendary Opry debut. He was invited to perform on stage by Porter Wagoner when in Nashville finishing up his song “It’s Too Funky in Here.” While on stage, he performed a medley of songs including “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” A lifelong country music fan, Brown later said that performing on the Opry was a career highlight.
8. Singer, songwriter, and producer Pharrell Williams was recently invited on stage as the special guest of Opry group Little Big Town. He joined the band on stage on June 7, 2016 to help them sing “C’mon,” a track off their album Wanderlust. The album was produced by Williams and features other collaborations with Justin Timberlake and Chad Hugo of N.E.R.D.
9. The 1980 biopic film Coal Miner’s Daughter tells the story of Opry member Loretta Lynn’s rise to fame. The film’s Academy Award-winning actress, Sissy Spacek, would later be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry stage by none other than Loretta Lynn herself.
10. In 2007, famed actor Kevin Costner formed a country-rock band, Kevin Costner & Modern West. It was after the release of the band’s fourth studio album that they made their Opry debut. There, they performed the title song off of their album Famous for Killing Each Other. The band has performed at the Opry several times since their debut.
11. It wasn’t a complete shock when comedian and musician Jack Black made his Opry debut. After all, he grew up with bluegrass roots and had a father-in-law, Charlie Haden, who was a famed jazz bassist. Black and Haden performed on the Opry stage on Feb. 28, 2009. Alongside them were bluegrass stars Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Andy Hall, Jim Mills, and Bryan Sutton.
12. On Sept. 1, 2009, Golden Globe-winning actor Kevin Bacon and his Emmy-winning brother Michael Bacon made their Grand Ole Opry debut as The Bacon Brothers. They performed on stage with The Bellamy Brothers, singing “Guilty of the Crime.” The duo has recorded a number of albums and continue to tour together.
13. At the age of 17, a young Steve Martin paid homage to his roots when he began playing the banjo. It wasn’t until 1976 when the actor and comedian decided to incorporate the instrument into his standup routine on an episode of Saturday Night Live that many people saw his musical talents. It was only fitting when in 2009, Martin made his Opry debut playing songs from his album The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. He was joined onstage by Vince Gill, Amy Grant, and John McEuen.
14. Many talk show hosts and radio personalities have stopped by the Opry. In 1976, future news anchor Anderson Cooper, then just a child, visited the Grand Ole Opry. He attended the show with his well-known parents, author Wyatt Cooper and designer Gloria Vanderbilt, and his brother Carter. He mingled with Minnie Pearl and other Opry stars, collecting autographs backstage.
15. Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts has visited on two occasions, serving as a guest announcer for Opry Goes Pink, a special show that helps raise funds in the fight against breast cancer.
16. Bob Schieffer of CBS attended the Opry in 2008 while in town for a presidential debate. He performed “Alcohol” alongside Brad Paisley.
17. Charles Osgood, former host of CBS Sunday Morning, made his Opry debut in 2010 as a guest announcer. Osgood performed “You Are My Sunshine” on the piano in honor of the Opry’s 85th birthday.
18. At each of the Grand Ole Opry’s birthday celebrations, a giant cake is rolled out on stage, but a milestone like 85 years called for an extra special cake made by Chef Duff Goldman, best known for his Food Network show, Ace of Cakes. His 4-feet-tall cake was an edible replica of the Opry’s iconic microphone stand and circle flanked by two guitars. After the big on-stage reveal, Goldman and his sous chef, Geof Manthorne, played on stage with Opry member Charley Pride.
Other Surprising Guests
19. While in Nashville for an art exhibit and reception at the Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, artists Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth received an invitation from Dorothy Ritter — a Western movie actress, widow of Opry member Tex Ritter, and unofficial backstage host — to be guests of the show. On Jan. 29, 1977, they caught the show and later met many of the Opry members backstage.
20. 2010 marked 85 years for both the Grand Ole Opry and the Harlem Globetrotters, so it only made sense for both to celebrate together. Charlie Daniels was joined on stage by three members of the exhibition basketball team. During Daniels’ performance of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” player Scooter Christensen demonstrated his ball-handling wizardry by spinning a basketball on the tip of Daniels’ fiddle bow.
The Grand Ole Opry House’s Friends and Neighbors dressing room is dedicated to show’s many notable visitors. See it, along with other unique dressing rooms, on a backstage tour.