Ryman Auditorium, National Landmark and former home of The Grand Ole Opry
A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON
In the 1885, Thomas G. Ryman, a riverboat captain and entrepreneur, attended a revival given by the evangelist Sam Jones. Ryman’s purpose for attending was to heckle the preacher and wreck havoc on the revival meeting. Instead something Jones said spoke to Ryman’s heart and he was converted on the spot. Then and there, Thomas Ryman decided to build a church to give Sam Jones a permanent structure from which to preach. It took Ryman 7 years to raise the necessary funds and in 1892, the Union Gospel Tabernacle was completed. In 1904, upon the death of Captain Ryman, the church was renamed Ryman Auditorium.
From 1904 until 1943, the auditorium served as a venue for political debates, revivals, ballets and other forms of entertainment. Under the management and guidance of Lula Naff the Ryman became one of the premier performance halls of its time. The Ryman hosted the likes of Bob Hope, Kathrine Hepburn, Harry Houdini and Helen Kellar. It’s acoustics earned it the title Carnegie Hall of the South. In 1943, Lula agreed to rent the Ryman out on Saturday nights to a popular radio show. The broadcast soon drew live audiences. Five months later NBC began broadcasting a portion of the Opry coast to coast. Lula’s decision had changed the history of the auditorium and country music for ever.
Ryman Auditorium was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974 feting legendary musicians such as Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, George Jones and Minnie Pearl. Opry cast membership was considered the highest achievement a country artist could attain.It was here that Bill Monroe introduced bluegrass music to the nation. It was here that Dolly Parton made her debut performance.
In 1960 major changes began taking place in country music and artists no longer needed membership in the Opry to guarantee their success in the business. By the late 60’s the Ryman was showing it’s age. The structure was over 75 years old, had no dressing rooms, no air conditioning and the surrounding neighborhood had fallen into decay. The executives decided renovation was not an option and announced plans to move the Opry to a newer, larger venue across town. In 1974, the Ryman closed its doors. For two decades the Ryman sat vacant and deteriorating. When the city of Nashville considered razing the old “Mother Church of Country Music”, public outcry followed.
After a major renovation championed by musician Emmy Lou Harris, the Ryman reopened its doors in 1994. In 2001 it was named a National Historic Landmark. Today it is open for touring and hosts artists from all musical genres.
Interesting little tidbit…
During the restoration of the original pews, workers scraped off approximately 50 gallons of chewing gum from the under sides where concert goers had been discarding their gum for ages.
Don walks reverently down the aisle way to take a seat in one of the many restored pews. I follow. We watch a movie about the history of Ryman auditorium narrated by country music singer, Trisha Yearwood. It was very informative, especially for me since unlike Don, I didn’t grow up listening to nor watching The Opry. We continued down to the front of the auditorium to stand in front of the stage. Then, a dream comes true for Don, he walks up the stage steps to stand in the very spot so many of his idols have stood before him, behind the mike, guitar in hand, he strums a few chords and has his picture taken. You’d have thought he was a kid visiting Disney World for the very first time.
Along the back wall of the auditorium are several display booths telling the history of the Grand Ole Opry through placards, costumes, personal effects and video. Radio station WSM 650 am, the voice of the Opry is still in their booth emitting country music over the air waves.
“Minnie Pearl’s costume was a frilly dress, mary jane shoes and a gaudy straw hat with silk flowers. An important element to the hat was introduced one evening at the Ryman. After adding some flowers, Minnie was onstage when the price tag from the flowers dangled over the edge of the hat. Other cast members laughed, and she decided that the $1.98 price tag was the perfect finishing touch to the costume.”
The balcony level features the Hatch Show Print Gallery. Their unique posters featuring performers from Tony Bennett and George Jones to Bob Dylan and ZZ Top adorn the hall. As you enter the balcony doors there’s a display celebrating the life and legacy of Minnie Pearl one of country’s greatest comedians and an Opry regular.
The balcony was added in 1897 for the reunion of the Confederate Veterans which was held in conjunction with the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The two events doubled the population of Nashville for 3 days. The balcony was given the name Confederate Gallery in honor of the veterans.
The Ryman is a beautiful Southern lady with much character and history. We left feeling a little sad that the Grand Ole Opry performance we will be attending this week will not be hosted in this fine old building.
After leaving the old Opry house we decide to drive to the location of the new Opry house. We want to make sure we know the route we’ll be taking to the show tomorrow, where to park and how much time we’ll need to allow for the drive. It was a good time to take some photos of the outside too since there wasn’t a crowd walking around and it gave us an opportunity to browse the gift shop without a miasma of bodies. We did purchase a few souvenir tees and I have a new charm to add to my bracelet.
We highly recommend a visit to Ryman Auditorium to everyone who visits Nashville. If you have tickets to an Opry performance, tour the Ryman first. You will leave with an even greater appreciation for the performers, the music, the saga of the Grand Ole Opry and why it has become a pilgrimage site to many of country musics faithful.
Here’s lookin’ at you kid……………………