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Weekly 150: The Ryman

The Chills of History

By Jason Martin
jmartin@mckenziebanner.com
Posted 11/8/22

After last week’s story on Jerry Lee Lewis, it seemed like I could not shake the feeling that I needed to do more about music. What was there to talk about that folks would find interesting enough to read? Plus I needed to do my best to keep it somewhat local.

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Weekly 150: The Ryman

The Chills of History

Posted
After last week’s story on Jerry Lee Lewis, it seemed like I could not shake the feeling that I needed to do more about music. What was there to talk about that folks would find interesting enough to read? Plus I needed to do my best to keep it somewhat local.
 
I got to thinking about the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, WSM-Radio, Sun Records, Acuff-Rose Music, Hank Williams (Sr. or Jr.), DECCA Records, the Quonset Hut, the Ryman Auditorium… Wait just a tick, yeah how about the Ryman, if you’re a true country music fan then you gotta care a little about the Ryman. 
 
I have to say the few times I’ve been in the venue chills just run up and down my body. Not saying it’s ghost or any hoodoo-voodoo, it’s just the history of country music is embedded into the walls and pews. Anybody that was anybody in the 1930s up into the 1970s performed on stage at the Ryman. It was known as the Mother Church of Country Music for a reason.
 
Standing in front of the building or even in the alleyway, the legends of country music stood there. There is probably just as much history inside the Ryman as there is in the alley that leads to Tootsies and other legendary watering holes on Broadway. Can you imagine seeing Patsy Cline, George Jones and countless other legends making their way from backstage to the side entrance leading to Tootsies? Then as you walk in there’s a young clean-shaven Willie Nelson and Roger Miller desperately pitching songs just hoping it will lead to their big break.
 
There have been numerous renovations to the Ryman in the last 40-plus years. At times depending on which side of the building you’re standing on, it’s impossible to identify. To be honest it makes me sad as the massive buildup of highrise structures nearly engulfing the building.
 
Like I said before, I’m an old soul or just a weird history buff, but I would pay just about anything to be able to see firsthand that little piece of Nashville in all its heyday glory. It would be priceless to see Hank Sr. stagger down the alleyway or hear Kitty Wells’ twang reverberate from the rafters.
 
While I complain about the renovation and revolution of Nashville’s skyline, it’s just another page in history. The Ryman Auditorium wasn’t built to house the Grand Ole Opry or be the top venue for country music. The story of the building begins in 1885 with Nashville businessman and steamboat captain Thomas G. Ryman. 
 
It was at a tent revival, Ryman who fully intended to heckle the evangelist, Samuel P. Jones, found the Lord and pledged to build a tabernacle for revivals like Jones’s for the people of Nashville.
 
After seven years at a cost of about $3 million in today’s dollars, the structure was completed. In 1882, thus began the building’s history as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. It wasn’t until the death of Captain Ryman in 1904, the building’s name changed to the Ryman Auditorium. One of the structure’s key features is its balcony. Due to a lack of funds, it was not added until 1897. The United Confederate Veterans members financed the construction and the balcony was called the Confederate Gallery.
 
In the early years, the purpose of the Ryman Auditorium was to serve as a place of cleric services but to keep its doors open promoters used the building for various events. By 1920, Lula Clay Naff was the full-time manager of the Ryman. She used her initials L.C. to appear ambiguous to avoid drawing attention to the fact she was female.
 
Under her guidance, the Ryman became the “Carnegie Hall of the South” as she brought in acts like Harry Houdini, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Mae West and opera singer Enrico Caruso. She even hosted lectures by U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
 
It is a misconception that the Grand Ole Opry got its start at the Ryman. The Opry started in November 1925 with WSM-Radio at the radio studio of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville. National Life built a larger studio as the show grew, but it was still not large enough. In 1934, the show moved to Hillsboro Theatre (the Belcourt) then to the Dixie Tabernacle in 1936. In 1939, the Opry called the War Memorial Auditorium home. Then in June 1943, the Opry moved to Ryman Auditorium and as they say, the rest became history.
 
For nearly 31 years, Ryman provided the much-needed home to the Grand Ole Opry. With its partnership with WSM and the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman earned the moniker of the Mother Church of Country Music. The biggest names in country music took the stage over that period. Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Billy Monroe, Johnny Cash and even Elvis Presley. As the show grew in popularity the building needed help to keep up with the times.
 
National Life purchased the Ryman Auditorium for $207,500 and changed the official name of the building to the Grand Ole Opry House. Musicians and fans still called it the Ryman regardless of what was plastered onto the front of the building. Accommodations were lacking, no air conditioning, small dressing rooms and little to no backstage forced many of the acts into the wings and the alley thus creating the legacy of Tootsies.
 
In 1966, WSM financed renovations and upgrades to the auditorium, but soon they realized it was time for a new venue. Over time the old building started to deteriorate and folks found the areas sounding the Ryman to be “unsavory”. Plans were announced in 1969 to construct a new larger, custom-built auditorium that would provide the needed accommodations for the audience and performers.
 
Enter the plans for the construction of the Grand Ole Opry House and Opryland USA off of Briley Parkway. The amusement park opened in May 1972, and the new  Grand Ole Opry House debuted on Saturday, March 16, 1974. WSM had made plans to demolish the Ryman after moving the Opry.
 
In 1974, Tennessee senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock worked with the United States Department of the Interior to preserve the building. WSM tabled the decision on the Ryman’s fate. The building was ultimately saved from demolition, although no active efforts were made to improve its condition.
For nearly 20 years, the Ryman sat dormant. The Gaylord Broadcasting Company acquired WSM, the Opry, and the abandoned Ryman Auditorium, but did nothing to the building. From April 30 to May 2, 1991, Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers performed three acoustic concerts at the dilapidated building, during which no one was allowed to sit on or beneath the balcony due to safety concerns. The recordings were released and won a Grammy creating a revived interest in the nearly forgotten venue.
 
In 1993, Ed Gaylord decided it was time to do something with his property and began an $8.5 million restoration project. In 2015, the Ryman underwent another $14 million renovation and expansion. Much of the 1994 expansion was gutted and remodeled. In 2001, the Ryman was declared a National Historic Landmark.
 
While some stars like Roy Acuff were on record as denouncing the Ryman and wanting it demolished in the name of progress. Many stars have used the Ryman for their memorial services of many prominent country music figures; Tammy Wynette, Chet Atkins, Skeeter Davis, Harlan Howard, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Billy Block, George Hamilton IV, Earl Scruggs, Jim Ed Brown, and most recently Naomi Judd.
 
Each day a little piece of history dies in Nashville as the metro outgrows its footprint, and while the Ryman isn’t necessarily the Ryman of my grandparents’ generation at least it is still around. And I hope those chills never leave.

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