The Ryman Auditorium, aka the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville, Tennessee has been a musical mainstay in the city known for its legendary country music venues. The auditorium opened in the late 1800s first as a tabernacle after founder Thomas G. Ryman was so inspired by a sermon by Reverend Sam Jones, he vowed to create a place of worship so that all could hear Jones’ message loud and clear. The building of the Union Gospel Tabernacle, located in Downtown Nashville, was completed in 1892 with the seating capacity of 3,755. Capacity crowds would show up to hear Rev. Jones’ sermons with hundreds more being turned away. In 1897, the construction of the Confederate Gallery added to the Ryman Auditorium seating capacity by 6000. The Ryman Stage came about in 1901 when it was constructed specifically for a performance by the Metropolitan Opera. After Ryman’s death in 1904, Rev. Sam Jones took a vote and the building was renamed in his honor as the Ryman Auditorium.
The auditorium has long been a staple in the local community and has been a hotspot for everything from community events and political rallies to operas, symphonies, bands, ballets and other theatrical productions. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt(who stayed on stage almost three times as long as scheduled) and William Howard Taft each graced the Ryman stage which also saw the inaugurations of three governors of Tennessee. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Mary also took to the Ryman stage for a lecture and theirs was the first event to sell out the Ryman Auditorium. Famous performers like Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope, and Mae West all visited the Ryman Auditorium as well and were spotlighted on the Ryman stage. It was during this time that the auditorium earned the nickname “The Carnegie Hall of the South” and George D. Hay started his radio show The Grand Ole Opry Radio which found its home in the Ryman Auditorium in 1943. The live radio show ran for 31 years in the auditorium and included legends like Elvis Presley, Hank Williams(who was brought back for six encores, an Opry record), Johnny Cash(who met his future wife backstage at the Ryman), Marty Robbins, Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff with every single show sold out. For some, like bluegrass legend Larry Gatlin, the Grand Ole Opry was their big break. Gatlin, who shares his Opry membership with his brother under the name The Gatlin Brothers, was discovered by Opry great Dottie West in 1971 and has since written songs for phenomenon’s like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Its connection with the Grand Ole Opry linked the Ryman to the birth of modern country music and it’s also known for being the Birthplace of Bluegrass. Nashville natives affectionately refer to the Ryman as The Mother Church of Country Music because of its history. When new owners took over took over the auditorium in 1963, it was renamed the Grand Ole Opry House though the Ryman name was hard to shed. In 1966, the Opry House was upgraded, but plans were being made to move the Opry radio show to a new location. Even though the building was deteriorating and lacked air conditioning, crowds too large for the space would show up to experience the popular show.
In 1971, the Ryman was included in the National Register of Historic Places and in 2001, it was designated a Natural Historic Landmark. After the Opry left to its new location in 1974, the name Ryman returned and the historic building continued to pull in tourists from around the globe though no shows were being held and the local neighborhood had become an area mostly filled with adult shops and drunkards. While the auditorium was dormant, movies like the Loretta Lynn Oscar-winning biopic, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Sweet Dreams which was the story of Patsy Cline, were filmed there as were episodes for tv shows like Dolly Parton’s variety show. Since its 1994 renovation, when it was finally outfitted with air conditioning, dressing rooms and a building housing a box office among other things, the Ryman theater with its new and improved acoustics has seen many more legendary performers.The show “Always…Patsy Cline” premiered with a 67-show performance schedule the same year. The renovation also provided the national historic landmark with better radio and production facilities. It has been featured in projects like the Levon Helm-Rambe at the Ryman and is where artists like Marty Stuart and Earl Scruggs have worked on their live audio recordings. The Grand Ole Opry returned to the Ryman Auditorium in January of 1999 and featured stars like Holly Dunn, Joe Diffle, and Steve Wariner. The show is also where Ricky Skaggs surprised Trisha Yearwood with an invitation to become a Grand Ole Opry member. Others, like Brad Paisley, became members shortly after.
Another renovation and expansion in 2015 added to the Ryman Auditorium seating and gift shop as well as added the Cafe Lula, named in memory of past Ryman Auditorium manager Lula C. Naff who booked many of the auditorium’s remarkable performances. A 100-seat theatre was also added and it houses a short holographic film which is the first exhibit on the building’s daily self-guided tours. The film, titled The Soul of Nashville, features an original song performed by Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Other videos, hosted by Charles Esten, Marty Stuart, Nicole Kidman, Ricky Skaggs, Robin Roberts and Trisha Yearwood, guide visitors through Ryman’s history. The more recent renovation along with the construction of other attractions helped revitalize downtown Nashville and its tourism business. The acoustics in the Ryman Auditorium have been called among the best in the world and for that reason, famous performers from around the world have flocked to the historic building.
Even today, the Ryman continues to win accolades and awards. It was named the Pollstar’s Theatre of the Year(one of the most prestigious awards in the industry) for 6 years in a row, winning the award every year from 2010-2015, and is currently ranked twenty-fifth in the world and nineteenth domestically based on year-to-date tickets sales in the Pollstar Theatre category. It was also named the SRO Venue of the Year, an award presented by the CMA. Musicians love the Ryman. Sheryl Crow has said of the auditorium ”I feel at home on this stage” and Taylor Swift gushed “You changed my life when I stepped on your stage for the first time!” Other musicians like Jason Mraz, Coldplay, Keith Urban, and Kid Rock all have nothing but good things to say about their experiences at the Ryman.
As one of the nation’s best venues, the Ryman Auditorium is a must-see for music lovers. A Ryman Auditorium concert or event(there are over 200 hosted each year) is an experience in and of itself. Though known mostly for country and bluegrass, concerts performed on the Ryman stage vary in genre. Upcoming Ryman Auditorium events include the summertime tradition of Bluegrass Nights(which has been hosted by Bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs), performances by Jeff Foxworthy in May and Merle Haggard in September, and concerts by Adam Lambert, Leon Bridges, and Kirk Franklin. For those wanting to see what an event in the historical landmark is like, Ryman Auditorium tickets can be purchased on the ryman.com website. If you’d like to learn more about the Ryman Auditorium Nashville, visit ryman.com where you’ll find the Ryman Auditorium schedule and information on the Ryman Auditorium seating chart. Purchases can also be made at the Ryman Auditorium box office.