South Broadway in Nashville is lined with neon signs and honkey tonks, but take a short walk up Fifth Ave. and you find yourself standing in the shadow of legends at the Mother Church of Country Music.
It was here that the Grand Ole Opry was broadcast to living rooms across the country, but the stage has also hosted The Boss (Bruce Springsteen), The Moody Blues, The Black Crows, and Crossville’s own Mandy Barnett.
Built in 1892, the Ryman Auditorium started out with a different purpose. Capt. Thomas Ryman, a successful riverboat captain in the bustling town, had been inspired to built the Union Gospel Tabernacle after a tent revival in 1885. He envisioned a place where all people would be welcome and their souls would be nourished.
The Rev. Sam Jones, a popular traveling minister who held the tent revival that inspired Ryman would help, holding tent meetings and raising funds for the construction.
Though Ryman generously supported the building fund and people of the city contributed, the church opened in debt. Performances and meetings helped pay for the building. In the early years, the church hosted the 1893 Southern Baptist Convention, John Phillip Sousa’s Peerless Band in 1894, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
It wasn’t just music, however. The venue brought lecturers like Booker T. Washington and Helen Keller, magician Harry Houdini, and the Imperial Russian Ballet to Nashville. It offered a place for political discourse, with various debates over the years. Among the noted speakers were Susan B. Anthony and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft. Three Tennessee Governors were sworn into office on the Ryman stage. The National Women’s Suffrage Association Convention was held there in 1914.
At first, the auditorium included only one level of seating. When the United Confederate Veterans sought a place for their seventh reunion, a balcony was added to accommodate the more than 74,000 attendees. The group donated their proceeds to the building fund.
In 1901, a stage was built to bring the Metropolitan Opera to Nashville.
When Capt. Ryman passed away in 1904, more than 5,000 mourners crowded the tabernacle for the Christmas Day funeral. The Rev. Jones proposed renaming the building the Ryman Auditorium in his honor, and the crowd enthusiastically agreed.
After Ryman passed away, a talent agency began promoting the venue for events, concerts and attractions. Lula Naff, a widow from East Tennessee, began working with the agency and booking talent. The agency dissolved in 1914, but Naff stayed on, becoming the High Priestess of the Mother Church. Night after night, she would fill the old church pews with paying patrons. The board of directors finally hired her to manage the Ryman in 1920, a job she would keep until 1950.
Perhaps one of the most important decisions she made was to welcome the weekly radio show the Grand Ole Opry to the Ryman in 1943. The weekly musical show remained at the Ryman until 1974 when it moved out of the city center to the new Opry building at Opryland theme park — which is now Opry Mills Mall.
The Ryman Auditorium was abandoned. It sat on Fifth Ave. slowly falling apart, with broken windows and neglected roof repairs. Gaylord Entertainment purchased the building in 1983 and began working on exterior renovations in 1989.
It was the artists that helped save the historic venue. Dolly Parton brought together the women of country music in 1988 for her ABC variety show. Emmylou Harris and The Nash Ramblers recorded a live album at the Ryman in 1989.
After a century in Nashville, plans for a major renovation were announced in 1992 and the building reopened in June 1994.
The first show in the renovated venue was Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. The next, on June 9, 1994, was “Always…Patsy Cline,” a musical based on the life of the country music legend — played by Crossville’s Mandy Barnett. The show had a 67-performance run.
The Ryman Auditorium never looked back. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2001 and named the official birthplace of bluegrass in 2006.
The oak pews continue to welcome more than 2,300 guests to performances throughout the year in a venue performers and fans alike adore.
While it’s great to catch a show at the Ryman, don’t let the performance calendar worry you. They offer tours of building every day. Their exhibits include historic concert posters, a gallery of images, and the Inspired: 125 years of Performance with artifacts and memorabilia from the Ryman’s storied history. You can choose from a self-guided tour, a guided tour and, when available, a backstage tour. The tour includes a souvenir photo on the Ryman stage and the chance to show your musical talent in the recording booth.
Learn more at ryman.com.