Evolution of The Ryman: Rebuilding Music’s Most Iconic Stage
Over the course of 130 years, Ryman Auditorium has transformed from a religious entity to one of the most revered music venues in the world. This is how it went from the home of the Grand Ole Opry, to the soul of Nashville.
“Like Leaving An Old Friend”
Opry legend and comedian Minnie Pearl tried to stifle her tears as Roy Acuff addressed the crowd during one of the last Grand Ole Opry performances before the show moved out of Ryman Auditorium to its new and permanent home at Opryland in 1974.
The Ryman was showing its age, and the Opry had outgrown the venue. Rumors of demolition crept through the community. A local newspaper reported that Minnie shed tears for the “little ghosts” that lived there.
“I’m not worried at all – just a little sad because I’m saying goodbye to a lot of spooks and shadows,” she told a reporter.
While the show that made country music famous moved on, those spooks and shadows remained inside the Ryman. And they went largely unbothered for almost 20 years. The owner of the Ryman, National Life Insurance, reconsidered its plans to demolish the building after community members and lawmakers worked to designate the Ryman a National Historic Landmark. Local groups rallied to “save the Ryman” and a National Life Insurance chairman said they’d consider other options.
Brick By Brick
The once sought-after venue sat mostly empty for 19 years. Every so often, the lights would come on for limited tours. Or film crews would roll into town to shoot at the recognizable Mother Church. Parts of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” were filmed there in 1980 and Dolly Parton filmed an episode of her variety show there in 1988, where she poignantly reunited with Porter Wagner after a professional split fourteen years prior.
In 1989, the auditorium’s new owner, Gaylord Entertainment Company, began renovations. Two years later, Emmylou Harris and The Nash Ramblers recorded a live album and accompanying documentary Live at the Ryman on its worn and forgotten stage. The show brought new energy to the Ryman.
Major renovations were underway: a new roof was installed, broken windows were replaced, the original woodwork was repaired, the brick chimneys were rebuilt, and a large arched pediment that had fallen into the attic in the ‘50s was replicated and returned to the Fifth Avenue side of the building – restoring Captain Tom Ryman’s original vision.
Ryman Auditorium celebrated its centennial in 1992 and reopened in June of 1994 as a premier performance hall and museum. Coming full circle, the first public performance in the newly renovated space was Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion – originally inspired by the last Opry show at the Ryman in 1974.
The Mother Church Returns
Performers of all sorts, from all genres, regions, and walks of life, began booking shows at the world-renowned Ryman Auditorium. And after decades of back-and-forth, the Ryman was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2001.
“If I could pick one structure that truly embodies our country music heritage it would have to be the Ryman Auditorium,” said Tenn. Sen. Bob Clement. “As this historic designation for the Ryman is a facility of national significance which elicits a certain devotion and reverence from country music stars and fans alike.”
From 2001 to 2003, Brad Paisley was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, memorial services for country icons Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny cash were held, and Dolly Parton performed (for her first Nashville concert in over nine years) on the Ryman stage. While the Grand Ole Opry had put the Ryman on the map as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” that devotion and reverence poured in from stars and fans of other genres as well.
Rock legend Bob Dylan made a stop at the Ryman during his “Never Ending” tour in 2007. Ringo Starr celebrated his 73rd birthday at the Ryman in 2012. The Foo Fighters did a surprise show on Halloween in 2014. And pop sensation Harry Styles made his Ryman debut in 2017.
“When we booked this tour, this was kind of the reason, this room,” he told the sold-out crowd.
In 2019, The Wu-Tang Clan made history as the first hip-hop act to headline the venue. A few months later, R&B hitmaker Lizzo sold out the venue as part of her “Cuz I Love You Too” tour. In 2022, the Ryman hosted Trixie and Katya Live! – its first headlining drag show.
Whether serving as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, or the world-renowned concert hall it is today, the Ryman has always been a sacred space for those looking for revelation, inspiration, and entertainment. Over the course of 130 years, it remains a place to gather and a place to celebrate – just as Tom Ryman, Lula C. Naff, the Grand Ole Opry, Emmylou Harris, and so many more intended.
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