Home for country music would have to be the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville was our home for one night and half a day as Jimmy and I made our way south from Chicago to Miami last month.
We stopped at the Grand Ole Opry House holding out hope for a tour of country music’s famous venue, the same building that suffered water damage in 2010 when the nearby Cumberland River overflowed its banks.
We high tailed it to downtown Nashville faster than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest to see this National Historic Landmark, hailed as the birthplace of bluegrass.
Built in 1892, the Ryman Auditorium was originally called the “Union Gospel Tabernacle,” the dream of Nashville businessman and riverboat captain Thomas Green Ryman. He was looking to provide a permanent home for the fiery traveling evangelist, the Reverend Sam Jones. It was important the acoustics for his new tabernacle be capable of carrying the reverend's voice across the hundreds of rows of faithful. When Ryman died twelve years later, the Union Gospel Tabernale was renamed the Ryan Auditorium in his honor.
In 1920, when the Board of Directors for the Ryman Auditorium hired her directly to manage the auditorium, she did so with considerable success until her retirement in 1955 at the age of 80. Well, I’ll be just swaney! That was an impressive run, honey chil'!
During her tenure, L.C. booked noted celebrities such as Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Valentino, and the Ziegfeld Follies. Shrewd, determined, and capable, L.C. even booked boxing matches, livestock auctions, speakers and political debates. Well, I declare!
I could tell you the rest was history, but if you’re like me, I really didn’t know much of that history. I came late in life to country music thanks to Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum. I will say though, before adolescence brought Elvis, the Monkees, the Beatles and rock and roll, I remember singing along to the likes of Roy Acuff’s Wabash Cannonball, Red Foley’s Goodnight Irene and Patsy Cline’s I Fall to Pieces on my parents' radio.
Yes, I have a soft spot for Johnny Cash and June Carter, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, and of course Dolly Parton when it comes to country legends in my time. When you sing from the heart, the song trumps genre. Besides, I’m too much the chameleon when it comes to music to stick to one color.
I think that’s what I found so interesting about the Ryman Auditorium; all that colorful history.
Elvis performed at the Grand Ole Opry – once, in 1954 as a teenager, hoping to become a member of that most enduring “hall of fame” after moving to Tennessee with his family at the age of 13. The audience’s cool response to Elvis’ Blue Moon of Kentucky and his uptempto backbeat-driven fusion of country and rhythm and blues didn’t result in an encore that night, or any other night.
According to the Grand Ole Opry’s website, “there is no magic formula, no secret code that grants access to one of the most coveted invitations in all of music.”
The powers that be like to see a country singer have a musical and generational balance, a relationship with their fans as well as other performers, and a combination of career accomplishment and commitment. Singing harmony is not always easy. If you lose sight of what you stand for, you can drown in a sea of cacophonous distractions.
Sorry, after a wonderful 90-minute tour of the Mother Church of Country Music, my soap box is a natural next step. Their soap box was a beautiful four-story version, complete with a balcony, stained glass windows and a rich history carried on the notes of the heartache, hard times, love, and laughter revealed on that stage.
As the story goes, a second woman was instrumental in saving the Ryman Auditorium from the wrecking ball. Mind you, L.C. Naff was now long gone as the 20th century was nearing a close. Apparently Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, aka Minnie Pearl, country singer and comedian, had friends in high places.
That friend, Oklahoma businessman Ed Gaylord, bought all of the combined properties that constituted the Grand Ole Opry Radio Show (Opryland Theme Park, Opryland Hotel and Convention Center and the famed WSM radio Station, all across town at the new location; and the Ryman Auditorium, still sitting in its original location in downtown Nashville since 1892) in 1992 for a mere $225 million. When the dust settled, concerns about the future of the Ryman Auditorium were put to rest with Gaylord’s $8.5 million commitment to restoring Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to a premier theater by night and a museum by day.
She sits front and center in the lobby of the theater alongside the “King of Country Music,” Roy Acuff. Acuff is credited with moving the “hoedown” and string band format of country music to the star singer-based format that helped bring success to the Grand Ole Opry.
Touring new venues with my special guy is always a dream come true. It leaves me happy as a clam at high tide!
Bottom Line on Ryman Auditorium:
Verdict: What a gem! Next trip, we see a concert!
Insider Information: Parking in downtown Nashville reminds me of parking in Chicago; it cost us $10 for two hours of parking at a little lot just southwest of the auditorium. This may be the south, but the prices for parking are not cheap.
Nearby Food: There was plenty to pick from within walking distance. We hightailed it out of the area because of parking and the 9 hour drive ahead of us to Atlanta.
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RYMAN AUDITORIUM TRIVIA
1. The Ryman Auditorium earned Pollstar Magazine’s National Theater of the Year Award in 2003, 2004, 2010 and 2011.
2. The Ryman Auditorium comes with a curse, officially called the Opry Curse, associated with the deaths of numerous artists who found fame at the Grand Ole Opry only to die tragically at the height of their careers, including Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves (separate plane crashes), the murder of “Stringbean Akeman,” Ira Louvin (car crash) and “Texas Ruby” Fox (fire).
3. It’s believed the Ryman Auditorium is also haunted. Sightings of a “Gray Man” have been reported backstage as well as in the balcony, usually during rehearsals or after performances.
Some repeat performers have come to look for the “Gray Man” when preparing for upcoming performances.
4. The Ryman Auditorium hosts artists that cover alternative rock, bluegrass, blues, country, classical, folk, jazz, pop and rock concerts, as well as musical theater and stand-up comedy shows, including folk singer Patty Griffin in 2003, country singer and star Josh Turner in 2006, as well as the synthpop English band Erasure in 2006.
5. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan spoke to the first ever sold-out show at the Ryman on October 2, 1913.
6. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt (1907) and William Taft (1911) both stepped onto the Ryman stage to speak to constituents.
7. Five years after commercial radio was born in the U.S., the Grand Ole Opry Radio Show hit the airwaves (1925) under the call letters, WSM. National Life and Accident Insurance Comapny radio station owners hoped to sell more insurance policies via their new medium. Their motto, We Shield Millions, provided the impetus for their call letters WSM.