Nashville Music Trails: Part II ~ The Ryman Auditorium
The heartbeat rhythm of Nashville’s music soul finds its breath and life in the spirit of the Ryman Auditorium, where the creaks and echoes of this sacred church auditorium reverberate the sonorous wonder of music – some could argue it is hear the angels whisper sweet harmony in the balcony as troubadours dance lyrics in the somber yearning of love and loss, light against the shadows. The Ryman is the undisputed Mother Church of Country Music and for good reason – for decades it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville Sound, it now is a hub for music lovers of all genres – eager to sing sweet songs in the perfect acoustic ambiance of The Ryman’s hallowed hall.
The first thing I did when I went to Nashville in 2004 was find a parking lot backing up to The Ryman taking humble steps towards the grand ole’ theatre just to gaze on the edifice and soak in the history. I touched the brick and let the energy of music fill my spirit – the doors were locked – so I just stood there – taking in the scene – looking at the back alley way between The Ryman and Tootsie’s imagining the performers standing out side the theatre after their set.
Today we are going to take a virtual tour of The Ryman, digging into the history and sweet mystery of The Mother Church of Music.
“Quit your meanness” Samuel Porter Jones (He coined the Taylor Swift lyric before it was off the charts :))
The lore and legend of the Ryman Auditorium starts off with a fire and brimstone preacher of wit and grace, Samuel Porter Jones, and a ‘classless heathen’ of a Riverboat swindler – Thomas Ryman – who made his money on whiskey, gambling and avarice. Thomas Ryman made his fortune in Riverboats, gambling, casinos and investments – his seedy business interests helped build a fortune (he had some ‘legit’ businesses too – but like any money toting businessman he was willing to play all cards).
Samuel Porter Jones was a storyteller and preacher of immense charm, wit and common sense. He took the region by storm with his preaching style – converting sinners in revivals – one of Jones’ primary warnings was a chastisement of avoiding gambling and drinking saloons. Ryman took a beating a bit with his business and decided to attend a Jones’ revival to mock the preacher and to deride his call to repent and be saved.
God gets the last laugh and history can thank HIM for it, on May 10 1885, Ryman was sparked by the fire of the Holy Spirit during the revival – so deeply moved by Jones’ preaching that Ryman repented and as a fruit of his new found faith built the Union Gospel Tabernacle in downtown Nashville. The church was conceived as a sanctuary for Jones’ ministry. Designed by architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson, Completed in 1892 the Union Gospel Tabernacle became a gathering spot for worship and community events.
One historical event that still shakes the Ryman is the 1897 Confederate Veterans Reunion – the 7th anniversary of this reunion of Confederate vets was held at the Ryman. To accommodate for overflow space – veterans donated monies to build a beautiful and practical gallery (balcony) seating – expanding the Tabernacle/Auditorium to 6,000 capacity. This gathering was said to have had a fire of passion and excitement so strong that many report seeing a gray confederate ghost in the gallery…some paranormal experts speculate it is residual energy from the fervor of the event – others think it is an intelligent haunting – a soldier perhaps so torn apart by the war and so tied to the event and southern roots he rests in the gallery of the Ryman.
The Ryman’s music history starts way before the Opry, in fact the Ryman Stage was installed in 1901 at a cost of $730 – Broadway productions including Carmen heralded the first season of the theatre.
Upon Ryman’s death in 1904 Jones’ petitioned for the Union Tabernacle to be renamed The Ryman, after Thomas Green Ryman.
Other key early events of note:
– 1906 – Opera standout Sarah Bernhart performs Camille.
-1907 Teddy Roosevelt lectures at The Ryman – interesting to note that he stayed at the former Maxwell House Hotel – he could not sleep and ordered a midnight cup of coffee – Roosevelt commented that The Maxwell House cup was ‘good to the last drop.’
– 1911-Roosevelt successor turned rival, President Taft speaks at the Ryman
-1913 Helen Keller speaks at The Ryman
-1918 Charlie Chaplin talks at the Ryman to help sell war bonds for WWI
– 1919 Enrico Caruso performs
– 1924 The GREAT Harry Houdini brings his magic act to The Ryman
– 1925 Will Rogers – Cowboy humorist and singer performs
– Countless other wonderful performances took place from 1925-1940s when the Grand Ole Opry made The Ryman its home. Click here for an interactive timeline
The Grand Ole Opry:
It doesn’t hurt to play second fiddle if you’re first string. The Grand Ole Opry’s roots date back to 1925 when it started out as the WSM Barn Dance in the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville on November 28 1925. It originally aired after the Music Appreciation Hour – a classical show.
On October 18, 1925, management began a program featuring “Dr. Humphrey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians.” On November 2, WSM hired long-time announcer and program director George D. “Judge” Hay, an enterprising pioneer from the National Barn Dance program at WLS in Chicago, who was also named the most popular radio announcer in America as a result of his radio work with both WLS and WMC in Memphis, Tennessee. Hay launched the WSM Barn Dance with 77-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson on November 28, 1925, which is celebrated as the birth date of the Grand Ole Opry. (wikipedia)
Some of the bands regularly on the show during its early days included Bill Monroe, the Possum Hunters (with Dr. Humphrey Bate), the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Crook Brothers, the Binkley Brothers’ Dixie Clodhoppers, Uncle Dave Macon, Sid Harkreader, Deford Bailey, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and the Gully Jumpers.
Judge Hay, however, liked the Fruit Jar Drinkers and asked them to appear last on each show because he wanted to always close each segment with “red hot fiddle playing.” They were the second band accepted on Barn Dance, with the Crook Brothers being the first. When the Opry began having square dancers on the show, the Fruit Jar Drinkers always played for them. In 1926, Uncle Dave Macon, a Tennessee banjo player who had recorded several songs and toured the vaudeville circuit, became its first real star.
On December 10, 1927 the phrase “Grand Ole Opry” was first uttered on the air. That night, Barn Dance followed the NBC Red Network’s Music Appreciation Hour, a program of classical music and selections from Grand Opera presented by classical conductor Walter Damrosch. That night, Damrosch remarked that “there is no place in the classics for realism.” In response, Opry presenter George Hay said:
- “Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’.”
Hay then introduced DeFord Bailey, the man he had dubbed the “Harmonica Wizard”, saying:
- “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry’.”
The Grand Ole Opry grew in popularity switching venues several times from The Belcourt Theatre in the Hillsboro area of Nashville (Belcourt District near Vandy and Belmont) and War Memorial Auditorium across from the State Capitol before moving into The Ryman on June 5 1943.
Historic Opry Moments:
December 8 1945: I love bluegrass – it is the heart of mountain soul and revival crossroads of old finger licking and a new sound that lifts the spirit up with chords of truth. On December 8 1945 – Bluegrass came into its first genre mold – while it has its roots deep in history of Appalachia and beyond – the genre ignited this night as a movement. Grand Ole Opry Star Bill Monroe brought to the stage a band comprised of banjo guru Lester Flatt, innovative banjo picker Earl Scrugg and fiddling beast Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watt. Together they ushered in the bluegrass movement ‘The Original Bluegrass Band.’
April 13 1946: Chet Atkins makes his debut
1948: Little Jimmy Dickens joins the Opry and is a staple for over fifty years.
1949: Hank Williams Sr. joins the Opry to the delight of the crowd, singing Lovesick Blues. Hank had six encores from crowd demand – a record at the Opry.
1954: Elvis Presley makes his first and last appearance at The Opry where he is told to go back to Memphis – Elvis luckily did not give up his music career and when he went back to Memphis it was to Graceland.
1956: Johnny Cash joins the Opry
1960: Patsy Cline joins the Opry “I recorded a song called “I Fall to Pieces,” and I was in a car wreck. Now I’m really worried, because I have a brand-new record, and it’s called ‘Crazy.'” — Patsy Cline (1932-1963), to her Opry audience.
Patsy Cline died in a tragic plane crash in 1963 – yet her voice still lingers in The Ryman…Always Patsy Cline – a popular stage musical is performed in the theatre annually to huge crowds.
In 1974 – The Opry moved out to a much larger facility east of Nashville – Opryland. The Grand Ole Opry still performs select shows to this day at The Ryman.
The Ryman is still the hub of Nashville music – it’s pristine acoustic quality makes it a beacon for national touring acts – everyone from Coldplay to James Taylor and beyond make a date at The Ryman. I have attended numerous shows at the venue – each with its own character and tone.
If you cannot attend a show while in town I highly recommend paying for admission for the Behind the Stage tour.
It is the sort of good-touristy thing that gives you a bang for your buck. It is a pilgrimmage worth its weight in gold.
You can even make a record in the backstage studio.
For more information about The Ryman visit their website
Books about The Ryman