By “Tampa” Earl Burton, Rock At Night Tampa
In the States of America, there are very few iconic entertainment venues that come to mind for people. For rock and roll, you might think of the Fillmores – both East and West – or Red Rocks. Madison Square Garden comes to mind also, as well as the dearly lamented CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. But you would be tremendously wrong to neglect adding the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN, from that short list of historical venues. Recently I had a chance to tour the “Mother Church of country music” and learned that it not only has a lengthy and colorful history, but it also has a vibrant and impactful future.
First off, there’s a reason that it is called the “Mother Church.” The Ryman Auditorium was built by steamship captain and entrepreneur Thomas Ryman, without whom the building never would have been envisioned. Irritated by a preacher, Samuel Porter Jones, who railed against the debauchery he saw in Nashville in the 1880s. Ryman went on the attack, seeking out Jones for a confrontation. Ryman found his adversary at one of Jones’ tent revivals and, after hearing the sermons delivered by the revivalist, Ryman’s attitude was completely changed. Instead of looking to run Jones out of Nashville on a rail, Ryman looked to build him a “proper” building for Jones to conduct his services.
Thus, the Ryman Auditorium was born, albeit it was upon completion in 1892 then known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Jones not only conducted his sermons on the site, but the building quickly became known as THE venue in Nashville for entertainment of many types. He also looked to honor Ryman by naming the gleaming building after him, but Ryman politely declined the honor; it wasn’t until Ryman’s passing in 1904 that Jones was able to talk city leaders into changing the name to honor his benefactor.
While Ryman was critical to getting the building erected, there was another person that was responsible for putting it on the map. That was Lula C. Neff, an understated woman who took on booking responsibilities for the Ryman in 1904 and brought it to its ultimate glory. Neff would book politicians (Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft spoke there), actors (Bob Hope and Doris Day), band leaders (John Phillip Sousa) and even escape artists (Harry Houdini) who all trod the boards of the venerable stage. Perhaps Neff’s master stroke, however, was in embracing the then-burgeoning sound known as “country music.”
In 1943, Neff was approached by the Grand Ole Opry, which was being tossed out of its previous home due to “rowdy” crowds, to be the host venue for the weekly performances on WSM-AM radio. Neff was more than happy to book the venue for every Saturday night and the partnership between the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium was set. For the next 31 years, the Ryman and country music became nearly synonymous with each other, so much so that, upon the final performance by the Opry in 1974, many of the Opry members wept upon the conclusion of the final show (even today, there is a circle on the stage of the current Grand Ole Opry House that came from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium).
After the Grand Ole Opry left, the Ryman went into a funk. Management let the building fall into disrepair and, at one point, there were plans to destroy the building (surprisingly supported by Opry member Roy Acuff). For 20 years, the building continued to deteriorate, until Gaylord Entertainment bought the property and undertook a massive refurbishing of the building. This was somewhat spurred by the iconic Emmylou Harris performing on the crumbling stage in 1991 (the condition of the Ryman was so bad at this point that those involved with Harris’ performance could not walk under the balcony overhang and the audience was limited to 200 people) and, by 1994, the building and its beauty had been recreated and its life as a concert venue returned to the Nashville scene.
A Sense of History, An Iconic and Important Location Today
When you walk from Broadway in downtown Nashville, you would be forgiven if you missed the Ryman Auditorium today. With all the buzz and music that is going on in the honky tonks and bars only a block or so away, the Ryman seems to be an artifact of another time. That sense of history, however, is incredibly important in making the Ryman as iconic as it is today.
The building from the outside (with statues of Ryman, “the father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe, and Loretta Lynn gracing the walkways) looks massive but, once you are inside the doors of the Ryman, you are surprised with the intimacy that is provided inside its hallowed walls. The stained-glass windows weren’t an original with the Tabernacle (they were installed in 1966), but it is hard to imagine the Ryman without them. You can feel the historical significance of the entirety of the building just by walking through its halls as you prepare for a self-guided tour.
Kiosks are located around the upper tier of the Ryman, explaining the significance of the Ryman and the people who have been a part of its history. Neff’s significance to the history of the Ryman is exemplified by a video presentation narrated by actor Nicole Kidman, while black artists are highlighted by a video from Keb’ Mo’. Arguably the highlight of any tour through the Ryman Auditorium would be standing on the stage and staring out at the 2362-seat venue, with the iconic church pews still in their place as they were in 1892.
It is upon standing on this stage that you can capture a wave of what it might have been like for the performers in the past to have been there. It is where Monroe first performed what came to be called “bluegrass” music for an appreciative audience, where Elvis Presley was politely applauded by the people of the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville after his first performance, and where Johnny Cash allegedly met June Carter. You also have it impressed on you just how close the audience is during a performance at this venue – it seems like you can almost reach out and touch the balcony that hangs over the floor of the Auditorium.
Rock and roll has become an incredibly important part of the history of the Ryman, with many contemporary and classic rock artists taking their bows on its stage. Part of the memorabilia that is included in one of the Ryman kiosks is dedicated to rock artists (and a video narrated by Sheryl Crow emphasizes this connection), including B. B. King’s suit coat and a drumhead from George Thorogood and the Destroyers. The piece de resistance, however, comes at the very end.
At the conclusion of the tour of the Ryman Auditorium, you are greeted with a simple board that presents the names of ALL the performers – whether country, rock, blues, or gospel, whether actor or politician, all the way back to the Reverend Samuel Porter Jones – who have graced the stage you stood on. It gives you a connection to each and every one of these legends and cements for you the importance of not only the history but the Ryman Auditorium itself and what it has brought people for 130 years.
Suffice it to say, the Ryman Auditorium no longer is the exclusive property of the world of country music, nor of Nashville itself. It is now a part of the history of the entertainment world as a whole and is continuing to live up to another of its past nicknames, the “Carnegie Hall of the South.” If you think the Ryman Auditorium is “only” for country fans, you would be depriving yourself of a significant contact with history and a truly monumental moment if you bypass a chance to tread its halls. If you find yourself in Nashville, head to the “Mother Church,” the Ryman Auditorium, for one of the daily tours that you can take – you won’t regret the experience.
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