‘Mother Church of Country Music’ Celebrates 130 Years – Pollstar News
The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee opened in May 1892 as a religious tabernacle and has become nothing less than a spiritual beacon for music lovers everywhere.
“We’re building on our history and the artists who have performed here in the past,” said Gary Levy, general manager of Ryman Auditorium. “The artists who play here have a reverence for it – the people who have played here and the building itself. It has become a bucket list item here.
According to Levy, the reputation and prestige of the venue attracted artists who would not normally appear at a venue the size of the Ryman. Levy added, “and the energy from the fans is just awesome, second to none. The stage is so close to the audience. I say all the time, it’s kind of like playing a concert in your living room, the connection there- down with the audience.
Celebrating its 130th anniversary, the revered music hall announced a new multi-year partnership with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on May 26, including a daytime exhibit slated to open later this year featuring the more than 100 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. who have performed at the Ryman over the decades, including BB King, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Brenda Lee, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, REM and rock innovator Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who headlined the Ryman in 1948.
During the announcement, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Greg Harris announced the designation of Ryman Auditorium as an official landmark, one of only 12 such venues in the country. with Austin City Limits, Whiskey a Go-Go in West Hollywood. , California, King Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
“The Ryman is one of the most famous concert halls in the world,” Harris said in a statement. “With an unrivaled role in popularizing country music – one of the mainstays of Rock & Roll – its storied stage has hosted performances from an impressive number of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees and continues to do so. today.”
Operated by Ryman Hospitality Properties, the venue has received numerous accolades and awards over the years, including multiple Pollstar Theater of the Year awards, including 2022, in addition to an SRO Touring Award from the Country Music Association (CMA) and numerous awards from the Academy of Country Music (ACM), including Theater of the Year in 2021.
The brick and stained glass structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and named a National Historic Landmark in 2001 for its role in popularizing country music. In 2017, the International Entertainment Buyers Association (IEBA) added the venue to its Hall of Fame, and in 2018 Architectural Digest dubbed it the state’s most iconic structure. According Pollstar Box office reports submitted since February 16, 1999, the 2,362-seat theater hosted 1,887 shows and sold 3,698,434 tickets per press hour. Upcoming performances include Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam (June 8), Chelsea Handler (June 10) and Belle & Sebastian (June 13).
The original Union Gospel Tabernacle had an unlikely creator in Captain Thomas Ryman, a Nashville businessman who owned saloons and riverboats. In 1885 he attended a local tent revival with the intention of heckling lecturer Samuel Porter Jones and eventually converted.
Captain Ryman envisioned a large indoor meeting place, where worshipers could worship in comfort. The neo-Gothic auditorium lasted seven years at a cost of $100,000, over $3 million today. When it opened on May 4, 1892, it was $20,000 in debt and to cover costs, non-religious events were booked.
An unlikely hero stepped in to forever alter the creative vision for the venue—crossing genres, embracing change, and establishing the auditorium’s place in Nashville’s eventual rise to Music City.
Lula C. Naff was a widow and single mother when she moved to Nashville in 1904, the same year Captain Ryman died and the Union Gospel Tabernacle was renamed in his honor. Naff worked as a secretary for the Lyceum office which organized lectures, concerts and other entertainment and educational events for the public and the Ryman was one of the venues they used. The first paid sale was a lecture with Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy in 1913.
The office closed in 1914 and Naff was confident enough to start her own business. She opened up shop as a freelance concert and event organizer at a time when women weren’t allowed to vote in the United States. She shortened her name to LC Naff to circumvent prejudice in the male-dominated industry. She researched and negotiated deals, advanced production, managed finances, handled marketing and printing, and sold tickets from a box of shirts. In 1920, she was appointed general manager and was in the dark every year until her retirement in 1955.
She laid the foundation for a cast of multi-genre artists including Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin, Enrico Caruso, Harry Houdini, Katherine Hepburn, Will Rogers, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Ziegfeld Follies and many more.
Naff was a fearless pioneer. By attracting the biggest artists of the day to the hall, it cemented the Ryman Auditorium’s worldwide reputation as “Carnegie Hall of the South.”
She regularly fought against censorship. In 1939, she successfully sued the Nashville Board of Censors for threatening to arrest “Tobacco Road” star John Barton, who was considered too provocative. And she was a champion of racial diversity providing a stage for the Fisk Jubilee Singers at HBCU Fisk University, and in Jim Crow times she often ignored laws meant to enforce public segregation.
While Naff ran the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry was introduced to radio listeners in 1925 as WSM Barn Dance. WSM was a clear-channel AM station that could be heard in 30 states. Fans flocked to the studio where it was produced. With growing demand and a lack of space, the popular show moved several times before finding a home at Ryman Auditorium on June 5, 1943.
Featuring the most popular artists of the time – including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis and Patsy Cline – the venue’s combination of country music and religious foundation gave rise to the nickname “Mother Church of Country Music “, which is still used. .
But the place was not designed to be a concert hall for several artists. Without air conditioning or backstage, the male artists shared a small dressing room and the ladies relegated to the toilets. Between sets, performers congregated backstage or spilled out into the aisle where they often went to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
This practice is credited with creating a wave of honky tonks that have become a modern-day mainstay along Broadway in downtown Nashville.
The Opry finally left the Ryman in 1974 for the new 4,000-seat Grand Ole Opry House on Opryland Drive, 12 miles east of Nashville. The downtown theater returned to its original moniker and survived years of neglect before ownership changed and the attention of the city’s creative community, including Emmylou Harris, launched a new revival that extended beyond the brick facade.
“They were going to tear the building down and I felt bad,” recalls five-time Grammy winner Marty Stuart, who started playing Ryman at age 13 with Lester Flatt. “I remember going to Opry director Bud Wendell and saying, ‘This can’t happen.’ And Emmylou jumped on it and we went and made our call, ‘We can’t tear down the Ryman. It’s sacred.’ They were going to use the bricks and make a little monument to Opryland and it looked bad.
“I don’t know what he did, but Bud went behind the curtain at Gaylord and when he came out we had to keep the Ryman, and I had to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremonies. C This is a resilient house. This is the Mother Church. You are not destroying the Vatican.
According to Nashville music historian Brian Mansfield, The Ryman did two things when it returned in 1994: It positioned itself as a landmark, and it sparked a major downtown revival. The venue reopened in 1994 with Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” and the stage production of “Always…Patsy Cline,” about the country icon’s tender relationship with fan Louise Seger, starring Mandy Barnett as by Cline.
“I was 18 and playing in a place that I had only heard of representing someone I loved so much,” recalls Barnett, who was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2021. “It’s hard to put into words, but it’s spiritual. Every singer that comes to Nashville wants to play on this stage. Playing Ryman is a reference.”