The Ryman Auditorium, located at 116 5th Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee, is one of the oldest and most revered concert venues in the modern world. It seats approximately 2,362 people, with a floor level and balcony. It has been called the “Mother Church Of Country Music,” and was home to the Grand Ole Opry from June 5, 1943 to March 15, 1974. The Ryman Auditorium is considered by most historians to be the single most important piece of architecture in Nashville. Not because “country music” was invented there, but more importantly because it became the temple of “American music,” and has helped make Nashville a world-wide destination for those seeking true musical authenticity. If Mississippi is the “birthplace of America’s music,” then one could argue that Nashville is where America’s music “thrives.”
Before the Ryman Auditorium became “the Ryman,” it was called the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Before there was ever a building, a few hundred feet away, lies the Cumberland River. This is where the story begins, with a riverboat captain by the name of Thomas Green Ryman. Owner and operator of the Ryman Line, with his headquarters on lower Broadway near the river, no businessman in Nashville had a higher reputation for honesty and fair dealing. No man on the Cumberland had a more devoted following. If a vessel needed rescuing, or if a task seemed impossible, they counted on “Captain Tom” to find a way.
Thomas Ryman was an upright man, but not a religious one. He believed in hard work, and had created his business with nothing more than his own two hands and a lot of ambition. He was born into a poor family just south of Nashville on October 12, 1841. During the American Civil War, Ryman worked the Cumberland River, fishing, and operating a small ferry. His father had died just before the war began leaving Ryman to provide for his mother and four younger siblings.
By the year of 1885, Ryman was running a lucrative business. In the years following the Civil War, traveling by Riverboat had become very popular. Ryman’s fleet of steamboats, an estimated 35 vessels, operated at the highest level of efficiency and offered many luxuries of the day to its patrons. His steamboats were highly favored among the business class because they featured full service bars, with an impressive selection of wine and whiskey available for his passengers enjoyment. During this time riverboat gambling was also very popular. Captain Tom, never missing an opportunity to make a few more dollars, provided gambling tables for his clients. Ryman, at 43 years old, was not only one of the most successful and well known businessmen of Nashville, but also a father of eight children. He was at the height of his career.
One evening, while out with friends, he decided to drop in to hear the Reverend Sam Jones, a famous revivalist, preach in a tent at the corner of Eighth Avenue. Sam Jones preached largely against the consumption of alcohol and the dangers of gambling. Legend has it that Ryman intended to go into the revival to start a ruckus and to try and run Rev. Jones out of town. Afterall, the good Reverend’s message was “bad for business,” as far as Ryman was concerned.
On that particular night, Thomas Ryman never got his chance to cause a scene, perhaps other than to bow his head and repent for his sins. That night, Captain Thomas Green Ryman, found God. He was never the same again. As he came out of the tent and found part of the crowd standing outside unable to get in, he vowed to God that he would build a tremendous tabernacle where men and women of all faiths could worship together any season of the year. He also made a life long friend that night. Reverend Jones and Thomas Ryman formed a bond with each other and remained close for the rest of their lives.
Ryman set out immediately to make good on his word. He had made a promise to God, after all, and being a man of his word, he wasn’t going to disappoint God, or the Reverend Jones. It took nearly 7 years to reach construction goals, but in 1892, the Union Gospel Tabernacle opened it’s doors. The building was designed by architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson, at a cost of just over a hundred and twenty thousand dollars, the equivalent of nearly three million dollars today. Almost immediately, the Union Gospel Tabernacle began hosting musicians, speakers, and evangelists from all over the country. Thomas Ryman would only live for another decade. He died at the age of 63. During the last five years of Ryman’s life, Nashville business leaders, along with Reverend Jones, well aware of the work and fortune he had poured into the building, proposed changing the name to Ryman Auditorium. Each time, Ryman, president of the board, voted the idea down.
At his funeral on Christmas Day, 1904, the people of Nashville set aside their holiday celebrations and packed themselves into the Union Gospel Tabernacle to honor the man who had given the city its vast auditorium. The wooden stage sat covered with flowers, local businessmen and steamboat captains. The great Sam Jones himself preached the funeral sermon. “A purer, stronger, nobler man, truer to God than he, I have never met,” Jones said of Ryman. There were tributes from near and far to the “Father of the Tabernacle,” and Jones concluded his service by asking for a vote on his proposal that the Tabernacle be named Ryman Auditorium. And so it was. Reverend Sam Jones died just two years later in 1906.
Shortly after the death of Thomas Ryman, a woman by the name of Lula C. Naff, began to book and promote speaking engagements, concerts, boxing matches, and other attractions at the Ryman. Lula, a widow and mother, also worked full-time as a stenographer for the DeLong Rice Lyceum Bureau. In 1914, her employer went out of business, leaving Naff with nothing. She devoted all of her time to booking events, and eventually transitioned into the Ryman’s full-time manager by 1920.
Naff, who prefered to go by “L.C. Naff,” continued to book stage shows, bringing world-renowned entertainers to the city’s largest indoor gathering place. She single-handedly kept the Ryman at the forefront of Nashville’s social scene and enhanced the city’s reputation as a cultural center for the performing arts. Thanks to the work of Naff, the Ryman hosted a wide variety of stars during this era. Some of which included: Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Harry Houdini, as well as, U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. The first event to ever sell out the Ryman was a lecture by Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy in 1913. Because of this, the Ryman was often referred to as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.” Lula C. Naff retired as general manager of the Ryman in 1955, and died in 1960. She is honored today at the Ryman with a special part of the building called, “Cafe Lula.” She was a champion of women’s rights and that of racial equality. Many times while under the leadership of Lula, the Ryman auditorium hosted African American performers, and allowed integrated audiences, something that was nearly unheard of during the time of Jim Crow America.
It is nearly impossible to talk about the Ryman without talking about the Grand Ole Opry. So much of what the Ryman represents today, and so much of what it means to so many people is centered around the Opry. Since its debut in 1925, the local country music radio program known as the “Grand Ole Opry” had become a Nashville staple. It was not originally a stage show. However, the Opry began to attract listeners from around the area who would show up to the WSM studio to see it live. When crowds got too large for the studio, WSM moved the show to various auditoriums around the city that could accommodate the following. Unfortunately, the Opry was asked to leave both the War Memorial Auditorium and the Dixie Tabernacle due to its sometimes-uncivilized crowds. Lula C. Naff thought the Ryman would be a perfect venue for such an audience. The show was first broadcast from the Ryman on June 5, 1943, and continued there every week for nearly 31 years thereafter.
During its time at the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry hosted some of the biggest country music stars of the day, and the show became very well known around the world. The entire show, from start to finish, was broadcast on clear-channel station WSM, where it could be heard in 30 states across the eastern part of the nation. Portions of the show were also broadcast on network radio and television to a wider audience. Because of the building’s origins as a house of worship, the Ryman earned the nickname “The Mother Church of Country Music”, which it still holds to this day.
Unfortunately, the Ryman was never entended to be a television studio set. It lacked a true backstage area. There was only one dressing room for the men, while women were relegated to an inadequate ladies’ restroom. The shortage of space forced performers to wait in the wings, the narrow hallways, and the alley behind the building’s south wall. Many performers would often sneak across the alley to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and other bars, where they would drink alongside and sometimes perform for patrons. This practice enhanced the notoriety of the honky-tonk bars along Nashville’s lower Broadway.
[Editors Note: Anyone visiting Nashville today should be warned that Tootie’s is no longer owned by its original family, and has not opperated as an authentic “honky-tonk” in many years. For that matter, you would be hard pressed to find any type of bar or venue that resembles an actual honky-tonk on Broadway. Most of the musicians on Broadway are required to perform 80’s hair metal covers mixed in with 90s country hits. The only truly authentic honky-tonk on lower Broadway is Robert’s Western World, an absolute must see for anyone looking for authenticity.]
On September 27, 1963, the Ryman Auditorium was purchased by WSM, Inc. As part of the sale, the building was officially renamed the Grand Ole Opry House, though the Ryman name proved difficult to shed. In 1966, the company made minor upgrades to the Opry House, but soon thereafter began making plans to move the Opry show to a new location altogether. Despite the building’s deteriorating condition, the lack of air conditioning, and the collapse of the surrounding neighborhood, the show’s growing popularity often lead to crowds too large for the venue.
In 1969, plans were announced that the Opry would be moving to a new location, centered around a larger, custom-built auditorium that would provide a more controlled and comfortable atmosphere for audiences and performers alike, as well as better radio and television production facilities. The company purchased a large tract of land in a rural area a few miles away, where the new Opry theater would serve as the anchor of a grand entertainment complex. The development became known as Opryland USA, and came to include the Opryland theme park and, eventually, the Opryland Hotel. The amusement park opened on June 30, 1972, with the new venue for the Grand Ole Opry House debuting on Saturday, March 16, 1974. The final Opry show at the Ryman occurred the night before, on Friday, March 15.
On numerous occasions throughout the early 1970s, the Ryman faced impending doom. Several plans of tearing down the building in order to build a newer, more modern theatre were proposed, but ultimately, each plan was rejected. Therefore, the Ryman sat mostly vacant and decaying for nearly twenty years as the neighborhood surrounding it continued to dive further into the urban slum that became downtown Nashville. Avoiding the wrecking ball several times, the building continued to stand with an uncertain future until around 1989, when Gaylord Entertainment began work to beautify the Ryman’s exterior. The structure of the building was also improved, as the company installed a new roof, replaced broken windows, and repaired broken bricks and wood. The building’s interior, however, was left mostly untouched.
In October of 1992, executives of Gaylord Entertainment announced plans to renovate the entire building and expand upon it to create modern amenities for performers and audiences alike, as part of a larger initiative to invest into the city’s efforts to revitalize the downtown area. In September of 1993, renovations began to restore the Ryman into a world-class concert hall. Many of the original items throughout the Ryman were preserved, even the auditorium’s wooden pews were restored. To this day, they remain original to the building and continue to serve as the auditorium’s seating. New backstage facilities were built inside the original building, while a new structure containing a lobby, restrooms, concessions, offices, and a grand staircase leading to the balcony was constructed and attached to the east side of the auditorium. This also resulted in the Ryman’s main entrance being moved from the west side of the building facing Fifth Avenue North, to the east side on Fourth Avenue North, where an outdoor entry plaza, complete with a large statue of Thomas Ryman, also greeted visitors. Notably, the renovations resulted in Ryman Auditorium becoming air-conditioned for the first time in its long history. The Ryman, was inevitably, saved.
In January of 2012, it was announced that the Ryman’s current stage would be replaced after a 61-year run. The stage had been the second for the Ryman and had lasted far longer than Ryman officials had expected it would. It had been installed in 1951. The stage was replaced with a medium-brown Brazilian teak. It retained an 18-inch lip of the blonde oak at the front of the stage, similar to the way the Ryman stage was commemorated in a circle of wood at the new Opry House. Beneath the stage, the original hickory support beams were kept and reinforced with concrete foundations, cross beams were added in order to triple the stage’s load capacity and ensure that the auditorium would remain viable as a concert venue in the coming years.
In 2015, the Ryman received several millions of dollars in renovation and expansion, in which much of the 1994 renovation was gutted and rebuilt to better accommodate its guests. The original building was left untouched and remained in use throughout. The renovation and expansion includes more lobby space, plus expanded restrooms, concessions, and a gift shop, as well as a new quick-service restaurant called “Cafe Lula”, named in memory of Lula C. Naff.
The Ryman is a beacon of light that stretches to the far reaches of the globe, guiding patrons and performers from all over the world to the city of Nashville. It has become one of the most hallowed performance venues to ever exist. Experts have praised the Ryman Auditorium’s acoustics, calling them among the best the world has to offer. It has also become a rite of passage for many. You haven’t really “made it,” until you’ve played the Ryman.
Contribution from Desmond Smith – Desmond is a regular contributor to our magazine. He’s a guitar tech in Nashville as well as a member of the rock band Heathen Sons. Follow him on Instagram @desmachine.
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