Music History at The Ryman Auditorium {Tennessee}

One of my favorite things in this small corner of the internet that I’ve claimed is that moment of excitement when I have been to a place that another blogger has been to. These moments of a shared location just seem to connect us through time and space. The Ryman Auditorium is one such place that I had heard of but it wasn’t until reading about it from my fellow blogging friend Leighton of Leighton Travels that I really understood what an legend this place is in Music City. Since then I’ve been itching to go and experience this iconic place for myself. So to my friend Leighton, this one’s for you- a new favorite shared location.

Near the end of the 1800’s Nashville was a booming port town. There were saloons and shops covering the area bringing in business with all the ships on the river. One prominent businessman was Thomas Ryman who owned a fleet of riverboats and also owned several of the local saloons. But wherever there is the riotous good times of saloons there is also in equal measure the more religious admonishment to forsake those evils and turn to something more soulful. Thomas Ryman went out one day to try to see if he could encourage the religious group to relocate because they were not good for business. But instead of relocating them, he was so overcome with their message that he was converted.

Thomas Ryman

After that Ryman set out to create a tabernacle like no other where the influential revivalist Reverend Samuel Porter Jones who had changed him to a believer could have a large scale stage to share his message with the people of Nashville. Jones held his first revival at the site on May 25, 1890 as the congregation sat on the foundation with only 6 feet of the walls completed around them. It would take 7 years to complete the building and would cost $100,000 (equivalent to $4,000,000 today).

Thomas Ryman and Reverend Samuel Porter Jones

Reverend Jones wanted to name the tabernacle after Ryman, but over and over again Ryman denied this request. But in 1904 when Thomas Ryman died, Reverend Jones included as part of his memorial service the proposal of renaming the building after Ryman in honor of the incredible building that he had created. This proposal was met with resounding approval from all who attended. Two years later Reverend Jones passed away as well. But the Ryman Auditorium continued as the ‘Mother Church’ of Nashville.

During this time the management of the auditorium fell to Lula Naff. Naff maintained the heritage of the Ryman as being a place of worship through the early years. But then in an effort to help pay off some of the debts and remain open, Naff began to promote other events in the space. Soon the Ryman became the ultimate place for speakers, entertainers, sporting events, and music. Naff gained a reputation as a strong contender against censorship groups who threatened to ban various performances or events. It was her ability to book these events and bring world renown people to the Ryman that made it the cultural epicenter of Nashville. In later years, Naff would be called the High Priestess of the Tabernacle.

Lula Naff, the High Priestess of the Tabernacle

The Ryman saw all the greats come through those doors. With the appearances of Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, and Doris Day the Ryman gained the nickname of of ‘The Carnegie Hall of the South’. Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft gave speeches from the stage. Harry Houdini amazed crowds with his fantastic feats on this stage. The first event to sell out the Ryman was a lecture by Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. If there was an event happening in Nashville, then the Ryman was at the center of it.

After watching a introduction video of the Ryman, we then got to enter the historic building. The trademark colored windows gave that added luster to the rows of carved benches all facing towards the stage that so many have stood. Visitors are invited to sit and listen to the history of the Ryman.

In 1925, a local radio program known as the Grand Ole Opry came to the Ryman. The popularity of this show grew so much that soon it became a Nashville institution. The first broadcast from the Ryman was of the Grand Ole Opry in 1943. The Opry was at the Ryman for over 30 years before moving to its larger location where it is today.

Originally when the building was under construction, it was designed with a balcony. It would be a few years of gathering the necessary funds for the addition of the balcony before it could be installed however. The balcony was completed and opened in time for the 1897 gathering of the United Confederate Veterans who was largely responsible for the donated funds to complete it. Because of this, the balcony was called the ‘Confederate Gallery’ for many years. An original piece of the gallery is now on display. When it was uncovered they used it as a guide in rebuilding the balcony as exactly as it had been.

The Confederate Gallery

Over the years, the Ryman began to show it’s age. The building was getting run down and with the removal of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman was facing demolition. It sat there vacant and deteriorating for nearly 20 years. There was talk of leveling the entire place and building a more modern theater in its place. But the Ryman would be saved when it was purchased by the Gaylord Company and they decided to host a Grand Ole Opry anniversary celebration show there. Some of music’s biggest stars returned to the Ryman for the celebration. After that, all of Nashville’s musicians came together in a push to return the Ryman to its former glory. Since then it has resurfaced as the premier place to perform and artists of all genres want to perform on this historic stage and feel that Ryman power as they sing.

Today the Ryman is back to being the most coveted place to perform and has brought with it a new generation of musicians to the stage. Visitors can see display cases along the back of the auditorium filled with outfits, instruments, and other memorabilia of all that have graced the stage here. There is an extensive timeline set up with all those past and present who have come here to the Ryman and it is amazing to see such a depth of people who are highlighted there.

As we left the auditorium we spotted a barrel of whiskey given to the Ryman after Jack Daniel came to listen President Roosevelt speak here. After that, Jack Daniel was a big supporter of the Ryman and would donate money and whiskey for events held here.

Jack Daniels at the Ryman

Visitors can have their picture taken on the stage and the pictures are included with the admission ticket. You can also record your own song in the studio for an additional cost of $15. Two great pieces of Ryman history to take with you.

my friends singing Amazing Grace

What an amazing experience to visit the Ryman and dive into the history of one of Nashville’s most beloved places. It is safe to say that the Ryman is a big part of what made Nashville come to be known as Music City. On my bucket list has been added to come watch a performance in this historic and beautiful building.

If you enjoy Nashville’s Music City legacy, then here are some other places you may want to check out:

Country Music Hall of Fame

Grand Ole Opry

Thanks for joining me on this visit to the Ryman Auditorium. May the music of the city fill your soul.

22 thoughts on “Music History at The Ryman Auditorium {Tennessee}

  1. We visited Nashville last fall, but unfortunately didn’t have enough time to visit the Ryman Auditorium. I’m glad I could at least visit through your eyes and photography. There’s so much interesting history here.

    1. Thank you! It really is packed with history and it was so interesting to see how it adapted to the time and made the city what it is. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to visit Nashville again 🙂

  2. I remember enthusing over Leighton’s post, and thinking how, as a huge fan of music and the history of rock and pop, I absolutely have to visit Nashville, and the Ryman. Your post has just served to strengthen those views. Great reading.

  3. Aww, great piece, Meg. The history remains impressive, even when one is familiar with the story. I love all the characters involved and their names, it doesn’t get much better than Lula Naff. It seems the exhibits on The Ryman’s backstory have grown considerably since my long ago visit, which is great. Similarly, I don’t recall anything about a photo onstage, nor indeed the opportunity to sing a song in the studio, I would’ve been all over that. You took much better photos than I managed all those years ago, just love all the angles of those mesmerising windows and benches.

    1. Thanks Leighton 🙂 I think these historic places have had to add some extra inticements with the admission ticket to compete with the more touristy things downtown. So they added the picture and the recording studio. Oh those windows are just stunning and I really loved the handpainted design along the balcony. I would say this is definitely the greatest place in Nashville.

    1. haha, so true! To not only be converted in such a short time but then to go on a build such a place for the reverend to speak. Any church would be over the moon to get such a patron 🙂

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