Photos courtesy of Ryman Auditorium.
The Ryman Auditorium – Mother Church of Country Music
By Becky Gebhardt
It’s where Johnny met June, where bluegrass was born and where country music blossomed into a national phenomenon. Built in 1892 for a revivalist reverend, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium has survived for 120 years and counting as a venue for all kinds of entertainment, and most famously was the heart of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974. Hailed by many as the best theater in the United States, it has a reputation for being a favorite place to both see a show and to perform.
So many incredible musicians have stood on the Ryman stage over so many years, the building is simply saturated in music history.
But musicians weren’t the only ones to leave a mark on the Ryman, nor has it solely been a home to country music. American icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Elvis Presley, Hellen Keller, Mae West, Louis Armstrong and Katherine Hepburn have appeared there. Concerts, lectures, boxing matches, weddings, funerals, recording sessions and radio shows… the Ryman was home to them all.
Constructed for wildly-popular evangelical preacher Sam Jones, the Ryman’s original name was the Union Gospel Tabernacle. At the time, many America was experiencing a “Third Great Awakening.” People were flocking in the thousands to Christian revivals, often held in the open air or under tents.
Legend has it that in 1885, Thomas Ryman, a wealthy riverboat Captain and fleet-owner who made a living from the gambling and alcohol consumption taking place on his boats, went to hear Jones speak in Nashville intending to heckle. Instead, Ryman found himself deeply moved by the sermon.
In what must have been the very first “Ryman moment,” foreshadowing many inspired moments to come, Ryman decided to build a hall for Jones so his huge audiences would always have a place to convene. Thus the seeds for “the mother church of country music” were planted.
When Ryman died in 1904, his funeral service was held at the Union Gospel Tabernacle. The venue was soon renamed after its founder.
The Opry Era
WSM’s radio show, the Grand Ole Opry, brought both country up-and-comers and established legends to the Ryman for 31 years. At the time, popular radio shows like the Opry would draw large crowds of people who wanted to watch and listen while the program was broadcasted live over the airwaves to a national audience.
The sound of bluegrass debuted in 1945 on the Ryman stage when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys for the first time, creating a blockbuster lineup featuring Monroe on mandolin, Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on bass.
A 25-year-old Hank Williams played a record six encores when he performed at the Ryman for the first time in 1949.
Country stars Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Chet Atkins, and Little Jimmy Dickens shined at the Ryman during its Opry era. Atkins’ funeral service was even held at the Ryman on July 3, 2001.
Johnny Cash met June Carter backstage at the Ryman and finally married her 12 years later. Cash joined the Opry cast from 1956-65 and returned to the Ryman to film his television program, The Johnny Cash Show from 1969-71, ushering in its own roster of huge names to the venue.
Although the Opry left the Ryman many years ago as its permanent dwelling, it continues to return for three months each year.
The Ryman is a place where things happen that can’t or won’t happen anywhere else. Known as “Ryman moments,” never seem to loose their impact despite their frequency.
“Artists cherish the chance to perform here because they know they’re following in the footsteps of their heroes,” said Ryman Auditorium general manager Sally Williams. “Fans relish the unparalleled acoustics, the intimate environment and the ‘only at the Ryman’ moments that are common here.”
The stunning acoustics of the room shrink it into an intimate space despite its capacity. The house’s original oak pews can accommodate 2,362 concert-goers. But if it’s quiet, one can literally hear a pin drop on stage when standing in the back of the balcony.
It’s no wonder then that so many artists have recorded live albums and films at the Ryman. That list includes Jonny Lang, Robert Earl Keen, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Vince Gill, Pete Fountain, Marty Stuart and Foreigner.
In January 2000, Waylon Jennings, whose health was failing, played his last major concert at the National Historic Landmark. Backed by the all-star Waymore Blue’s Band, Jennings was also joined onstage by wife Jessi Colter, Travis Tritt and Montgomery Gentry for a concert that was preserved on the film, Never Say Die: The Final Concert.
The documentary and concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold was shot over two nights in August of 2005, with Young premiering songs from Prairie Wind at the Ryman.
Over the years, it’s become a tradition for artists to play a rocking plugged-in set, and then go acoustic for one or two songs.
When Franklin, Tenn. formed band Paramore took the Ryman stage in 2009, they delivered their typical blistering punk rock set for their hometown crowd. But for the encore, singer Hayley Williams stood away from the microphones with former bandmate Josh Farro on acoustic guitar for a touching rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “You Aint Woman Enough (To Take My Man).”
In March 2012, Brit folk-rock phenoms Mumford & Sons played a sold-out three-night run at the Ryman. On the last night the band walked to the front of the stage to perform without microphones. Joined by Old Crow Medicine Show and Jerry Douglas, the all-star ensemble made the audience roar and then gave them goose bumps with their gorgeous rendition of “Wagon Wheel.” When magic like this occurs, it’s clear that the artist is giving it their all and the audience is right there with them. Nashville fans know music and appreciate music deeply, making for a powerful and reciprocal dynamic between performer and spectator.
And while the Ryman’s country roots run deep, it is a place where artists of all genres may venture into that territory to pay homage to the venue’s history.
Counting Crows, Death Cab for Cutie, the Jonas Brothers, Hot Chelle Rae, Tenacious D, Primus, Kid Rock and Wilco have all held court at the Ryman in recent years.
“Growing up in Nashville and seeing almost every artist I’ve loved perform at the Ryman made my first show there something I’ll never forget,” said Hot Chelle Rae’s Nash Overstreet. “Stepping on that stage, it’s impossible to ignore the history and think of all of the legends that have been standing in that spot. Looking out at the crowd and seeing people standing up in between old church pews, dancing to our music, lets me know that we are finally on our way.”