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The History of the Ryman Auditorium

Nashville, Tennessee is known worldwide as “Music City,” unequivocally the number one destination for music lovers from around the world looking to learn about the past and the present.

Our CMA Awards program in Nashville is centered around the celebration of Country music, and without the Ryman Auditorium, there is no Country music. As an iconic and important part of Nashville’s music history and culture, a trip to Upper Broadway definitely worth a visit for any music lover.

Early Days (1890 – 1943)

Anyone who visits Nashville in 2023 will undoubtably have an encounter with Broadway and its many “distractions.” So it shouldn’t surprise you that those distractions were the inspiration for the building that eventually became known as the “Mother Church of Country Music.”

As the story goes, a wealthy local riverboat captain and saloon owner named Thomas Ryman was well known for his obscene and wild lifestyle. One day, the crossed path with a revivalist named Sam Jones who was giving a sermon in Downtown Nashville. So inspired by what the Reverend had to say, Ryman began to plan the construction of a grand tabernacle that could hold religious events in the city. It took seven years and $100,000 (about $3,200,000 in 2023), and the Union Gospel Tabernacle was competed in 1890.

Right from the beginning, the Tabernacle began to fulfill its mission. In the beginning, the building was the largest structure of its kind in the area so it became the place to host community gatherings, political rallies, and numerous entertainment events. This included operas, symphonies, ballets and theatrical productions. The Southern Baptist Convention met there, music festivals attracted the masses, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers entertained on the stage in 1892. Major attractions of the time also took the stage, including Harry Houdini, Helen Keller, and Charlie Chaplin. The Ryman soon earned the nickname “Carnegie Hall of the South”.

The Tabernacle was unofficially renamed the Ryman Auditorium after Captain Ryman’s death.

Glory Days of “The Grand Old Opry” (1943-1974)

While there was a music association with the venue from the beginning, it is the next phase of the landmark where the legend was formed. As the music part of the Music City was beginning to grow, there was so greater influence than WSM 650’s popular broadcast of “The Grand Old Opry.” When the show drew crowds too big for any other Nashville venue, the Ryman became its new home in June of 1943

Inside the walls of the tabernacle, the foundation of Country music was formed. Hosting some of the most famous and influential musicians of all time, the Ryman became synonymous with Country and Western music. In 1945, the prototype of bluegrass music was born live during a performance with Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt.

Greats such as Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul Simon and other countless musicians graced the Ryman stage. The CMA Awards were also hosted at the venue from 1968 – 1973.

Some of the most famous debuts took place in this period, including Hank Williams (1949), Elvis Presley (1954), and Johnny Cash (1956). In fact, the Ryman is where Cash met his future bride June Carter some 12 years before their famous marriage.

As the genre of music grew, the 19th century building stayed the same size. Soon, a double edged tradition was born. The small backstage meant cramped facilities for the performers, who would seek space at the lower Broadway honky tonks. Local dives such as Tootsie’s began to be known as a location there the stars frequented. While this inconvenience led to some legendary local stories, the writing was on the wall for needing a new building.

The Ryman’s Revival (1990s)

Perhaps current Country star Maren Morris said it best in her hit song The Bones. “The house don’t fall when the bones are good.”

After the “The Grand Old Opry.” moved into its new complex out by Opryland in 1974, the Ryman Auditorium sat vacant and in varying degrees of disrepair. Not suitable to host events without major repairs, there was serious consideration given to demolishing the building. However, the city of Nashville rallied to save the historical venue, including getting a designation on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

But it would still be another 20 years before shows returned to Broadway. In 1971, Emmylou Harris, whose career was in its infancy when the Ryman closed its doors, played a series of small concerts that brought the nostalgic magic through the pews.

Things moved quickly, and in a pre-Predators, pre-Titans Nashville, the city was able to supply the funds to restore the Ryman in its entirety. In 1994, the auditorium received a much-needed $8.5 million restoration that returned the National Historic Landmark back to its original splendor. The renovation included removing all the original oak pews, restoring them and then reinstalling them in their original locations. Also a part of the venture was installing performer dressing rooms for performers, upgrading sound and lighting technology, central heat and air conditioning and a 14,000 square foot building for ticketing, concessions and a gift shop. (Authors note: Living in Nashville at the time, it was a really big deal to see a show at the reopened Ryman. My first show was Sheryl Crow in 1995).

Once the building was up and running, the stars came out in force including Bruce Springsteen and James Brown.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bonnie Raitt had this to say about performing at the Ryman. “The Ryman has played an important role not only in the history of Nashville, but in country music and rock & roll as well. This stage holds a special place in my heart as I’m able to perform live with many of the incredible Nashville songwriters in the audience whose work has enriched my life and music. I’m honored to help pay tribute to of one of America’s great rock & roll venues.”

The Ryman Today

Rarely does a night go by without some time of performance taking place at the Ryman. A 13-time winner of the prestigious Pollstar Theatre of the Year award, the intimate stage has recently seen a diverse cast of performers including Lizzo, Trevor Noah, John Mellancamp, and the Foo Fighters (who played a 3 hour set on Halloween).

In 2021, the Ryman was designated as an official Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Landmark by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, joining 11 other rock & roll landmarks throughout the country including Austin City Limits and Whisky a Go Go, among others.

“It’s spiritual, and it’s one of the reasons she’s called the Mother Church. Like any good mother, she commands respect and makes you feel at home. As Music City and Country Music continue to expand around her, she remains the center of the family,” said Matthew Ramsey, lead vocalist of Old Dominion. “She’s a beacon and a bucket list experience for us all, creators and fans alike.”

Visitors to the Ryman can take guided tours of the venue, which include the auditorium, backstage areas, and the museum, which features a collection of artifacts, photographs, and interactive exhibits that tell the story of the Ryman’s history and the Grand Ole Opry.

In addition to concerts and tours, the Ryman also offers a variety of educational and community programs. These include school field trips, music workshops, and special events throughout the year.

Today the Ryman Auditorium seats 2,362.

The Ryman’s Unique DNA

One of the most notable features of the Ryman is its acoustics. The auditorium was designed with a unique “shoebox” shape and a hardwood floor, which creates a natural reverberation that enhances the sound quality. This makes it a favorite venue for musicians and music lovers alike. Combine the enhanced acoustics with the incredible Victorian Gothic Revival structure with timeless stained glass, and it’s hard to find another venue like it.

Want to visit the Ryman Auditorium yourself? Why not stop by during our CMA Awards package?

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