The Mother Church of Country Music

Americana, History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on September 28, 2003

For more than a century, folks have flocked to Nashville, Tenn.’s Ryman Auditorium, the world-famous former home of the Grand Ole Opry. But there’s much more to its story.

To most people, the Ryman is remembered for its heyday of 1943 to 1974, when the “Mother Church of Country Music” welcomed Grand Ole Opry fans with stars in their eyes, people who came to hear Roy Acuff warble Wabash Cannonball, gingham-clad Cousin Minnie Pearl bellow “How-dee,” or drink-in the unmistakable sounds of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash.

Although a carnival atmosphere pervaded the Opry in what WSM station manager George D. Hay described as “a good-natured riot,” the striking structure with its dramatic arches and stained glass windows loomed as a sanctuary for both fans and musicians. “I speak in hushed tones when I walk through the doors of this sacred place,” country artist Larry Gatlin once wrote.

The Ryman became famous for the Opry’s 31-year run, but historians note that this era represents only the middle ages of the venerable old building. It had a colorful adolescence and, in its maturity, is now revered as one of America’s premier stages.

Breaking holy ground
Tom Ryman, a wealthy Nashville riverboat captain, was hardly a saint when he encountered an itinerant evangelist named Sam Jones at a tent revival on May 10, 1885. Converted by a fire-and-brimstone sermon, Ryman set out to spread his newfound faith among the wayward who frequented the wharfs along the banks of the Cumberland River. With Jones’ endorsement, he began raising funds for a permanent meeting place available to all denominations on a parcel of land five blocks from the docks, yet removed from the din of streetcars on Broadway.

Completed in 1892, the Union Gospel Tabernacle (as the Ryman was first dubbed) became a spiritual hub of the city and attracted a range of well-known preachers. When the Confederate Veterans Association chose the tabernacle to house their reunion for the Tennessee Centennial Celebration in 1897, they paid for the addition of a balcony, expanding the seating capacity to accommodate 3,755 souls.

The original intent was that the building be used exclusively for Christian assemblies, but Ryman and Jones soon learned that these didn’t pay the bills. In 1901, they reluctantly turned management of the building over to Lula Naff, an enterprising young widow who aggressively pursued a wide variety of nationally notable secular events, starting with nothing less than the Metropolitan Opera.

To make the auditorium more versatile, the permanent pulpit and a number of pews were removed to make room for a stage in the early 1900s. At Ryman’s funeral in 1904, Jones recommended that the tabernacle be named in honor of his colleague.

In its early decades as a public auditorium, the Ryman catered to the cultured, hosting speeches by notable guests such as Arctic explorer Robert Peary, William Jennings Bryan, Helen Keller, and President Teddy Roosevelt. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin spoke on behalf of savings bonds there in 1918.

Orchestras, opera companies, and dance troupes graced the stage, headlined by John Philip Sousa, Enrico Caruso, and Jose Greco. Theatrical companies brought to town Broadway’s brightest stars, ranging from Helen Hayes, Orson Welles, and Tyrone Power to Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, and Will Rogers.

The Opry comes calling
By 1943, the Grand Ole Opry had outgrown a series of increasing larger venues, including the 1,668-seat War Memorial Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The acoustically perfect Ryman seemed a grand choice to accommodate its overflow crowds. A cavalcade of country icons were stepping up to the microphone and the Ryman soon became the dream destination of musicians and music lovers.

Swelteringly hot summers and uncomfortable oak pews didn’t deter fans from marveling at the music that flowed from the stage. Twenty years later, the building was purchased by National Life and Accident Insurance Co., owners of the Opry, and the name was officially changed to the Grand Ole Opry House.

The popularity of the show continued to grow, but the condition of the property deteriorated. By 1974, the show packed up its instrument cases and moved to the expansive new Grand Ole Opry House on the grounds of the Opryland USA theme park.

After the Opry’s departure, the building saw occasional use, but it was in such disrepair that by 1974 even Roy Acuff, one of the Opry’s most outspoken artists, endorsed its demolition. An outcry from preservationists arose and, in 1993, the building erected for $100,000 began an $8.5 million renovation.

Although some modifications were made to meet building codes and other conveniences were added (including ample restrooms and central heat and air), the hall retained its charm intact. It reopened in June 1994 to instant acclaim with a visit from Garrison Keillor’s popular radio show A Prairie Home Companion, which Keillor says was inspired by a trip to the Ryman in 1974.

In the past decade, the jewel, returned to its eclectic brightness, has been listed as a National Historic Landmark and was recognized in 2001 by Travelocity as one of the “ten coolest venues” in America to hear live music. Today the rafters ring with everything from blues to bluegrass, Handel to hiphop. The Opry still makes occasional pilgrimages back to the Ryman, and artists who could fill much larger venues yearn to play their music on the stage where so many legends have stood. Theatrical tributes to Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette, and the Everly Brothers have been produced there.

It has “starred” in numerous music videos and been the site of television and film productions. Tours are conducted daily to showcase its memorabilia and recount favorite tales of the Ryman’s past. Experts claim the acoustics of the Ryman are second only to those of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, surpassing even Carnegie Hall.

Although the breadth of its congregants has grown immeasurably, the Mother Church continues to influence those who step within its walls.

“To think of all the love that has been given from that stage over the years,” muses Opry star Connie Smith. “It’s in the wood. It’s in the building. All the memories live there.”