Ruth & I attended a performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on the day of country music legend George Jones’ funeral, a sad event that influenced the performance. That afternoon we took the self-guided tour of the Ryman to get in the mood.
Commonly referred to as the “Mother Church of Country Music”, the Ryman became a National Historical Landmark in 2001. Coldplay performed there in 2003 and declared it “the greatest theatre in the world!” Ryman’s acoustics are said to be bettered only by the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
Most people associate Ryman Auditorium with country music, but it had a long history before The Louvin Brothers and the like moved in. It’s named for an 18th century steamboat captain, Thomas G. Ryman. Deeply moved by the Reverend Samuel P. Jones at a tent revival meeting, Ryman decided to build a hall big enough for those who wanted to hear Jones preach. What is now the Ryman opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Renamed Ryman in 1904, it became an all-purpose venue for jazz, ballet, boxing, etc. and was managed for 35 years by Lula C. Naff who made it profitable while becoming a local legend. Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninov, Bob Hope, etc. performed there.
The Grand Ole Opry was in residence from 1943 until 1974 with rarely an empty seat. When GOO moved to the Grand Old Opry House at Opryland, there was talk of razing this 2,200 seat gem of a building where fans had sat in curving pews to listen to Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. Instead, Ryman was renovated and reopened in 1994.
Today’s self-guided Ryman tour includes a film narrated by Trisha Yearwood, special displays behind the pews and in the balcony, etc. The current ones pay tribute to Minnie Pearl and Johnny Cash & June Carter. Upstairs is the 5th Avenue Gallery with photos, paintings, etc.
The Ryman is again used as Grand Ole Opry’s main venue from November through January, and this spring it offered a series called Opry Country Classics on Thursday evenings. Ruth & I saw the May 2 show along with a couple of thousand very enthusiastic country music fans. We all loved the show hosted by dynamic, funny Larry Gatlin who earlier that day had attended George Jones’ funeral and talked about it.
After the afternoon tour, I spoke with Bill Gwaltney who informed me that Grand Ole Opry broadcasts have become the world’s longest running radio program. People still tune in at 650 AM in 36 states and Canada to hear it. I promised Bill that when I got back to Washington, I’d try to find it on a traditional radio as people have for 15 years short of a century.