Ryman Auditorium: ‘The Mother Church of Country Music’ Turns 130 Years Old

photo courtesy of Ryman Auditorium

The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, opened in May of 1892 as a religious tabernacle and became nothing less than a spiritual beacon for music lovers around the globe.

“We draw on our history and the artists who have performed here in the past,” offered Ryman Auditorium General Manager Gary Levy. “The artists who play here have a reverence for it – the people who have played here and the building itself. It’s become a bucket list item to perform here.”

According to Levy, the reputation and prestige of the venue has attracted artists who wouldn’t normally appear in a venue the size of the Ryman. Levy added, “and the energy from the fans is just great, second to none. The stage is so close to the audience. I say all the time, it’s a lot like playing a concert in your living room, the connection there with the audience.”

Celebrating its 130th anniversary, the venerated music hall announced a new multi-year partnership with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on May 26 including a daytime tour exhibit scheduled to open later this year showcasing the more than 100 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees who have performed at the Ryman over the decades including B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Brenda Lee, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, R.E.M., and rock innovator Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who headlined the Ryman in 1948.

During the announcement, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Greg Harris announced the designation of the Ryman Auditorium as an official landmark, one of only 12 such locations in the country along with Austin City Limits, Whisky a Go-Go in West Hollywood, Calif., King Records in Memphis, Tenn., and the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss.

The Man In Gray: Johnny Cash and his band, the Tennessee Two, which included Marshall Grant and guitar great Luther Perkins, performing in 1956 at the WSM Grand Ole Opry, which called the Ryman Auditorium its home from 1943 to 1974.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Image

“The Ryman is one of the most storied music venues in the world,” Harris said in a statement. “With an unmatched role in popularizing country music – one of the pillars of Rock & Roll – its legendary stage has hosted performances by a staggering number of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees and continues to do so today.”

Operated by Ryman Hospitality Properties, the venue has received numerous accolades and awards over the years including several Pollstar Theater of the Year awards, including 2022, in addition to an SRO touring award from the Country Music Association (CMA), and numerous awards from the Academy of Country Music (ACM), including Theater of the Year in 2021.

The brick and stained-glass structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and named a national Historic Landmark in 2001 for its role in the popularization of country music. In 2017, the International Entertainment Buyers Association (IEBA) added the venue to its Hall of Fame and, in 2018, Architectural Digest dubbed it the most iconic structure in the state. According to Pollstar Boxoffice reports submitted since Feb. 16, 1999, the 2,362-seat theater has hosted 1,887 shows and sold 3,698,434 tickets by press time. Upcoming performances include Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam (June 8), Chelsea Handler (June 10) and Belle & Sebastian (June 13).

The original Union Gospel Tabernacle had an unlikely creator in Capt. Thomas Ryman, a Nashville businessman who owned rough-house saloons and riverboats. In 1885, he attended a local tent revival with the intention of heckling speaker Samuel Porter Jones and ended up a convert.

Capt. Ryman envisioned a large, indoor meeting place, where the faithful could worship in comfort. The gothic revival auditorium took seven years to complete at a cost of $100,000, more than $3 million today. When it opened on May 4, 1892, it was $20,000 in debt and to cover costs, non-religious events were booked.

An unlikely hero stepped in to forever alter the creative vision of the venue crossing genres, embracing change, and establishing the auditorium’s place in Nashville’s eventual rise to become Music City.

Lula C. Naff was a widow and single mother when she moved to Nashville in 1904, the same year Capt. Ryman died and the Union Gospel Tabernacle was renamed in his honor. Naff worked as a secretary for Lyceum bureau that provided lectures, concerts, and other entertainment and educational events for the public and the Ryman was one of the venues they used. The first ticketed sellout was a lecture with Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy in 1913.

The bureau closed in 1914 and Naff was confident enough to start her own business. She opened shop as an independent concert and event promoter at a time when women didn’t have the right to vote in the U.S. She abbreviated her name to L.C. Naff to sidestep prejudice in the male-dominated industry. She was researching and negotiating deals, advancing production, managing finances, as well as handling marketing and printing, and sold tickets from a shirt box. In 1920, she was named general manager and was in the black every year until her retirement in 1955.

She laid the foundation for a cross-genre cast of performers including Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin, Enrico Caruso, Harry Houdini, Katherine Hepburn, Will Rogers, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Ziegfeld Follies, and many more.

Take Me To Church: The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, opened in May of 1892 as a religious tabernacle. Courtesy Ryman

Naff was a fearless trailblazer. By attracting the biggest performers of the day to the venue, she cemented the Ryman Auditorium’s global reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”

She routinely battled censorship. In 1939, she successfully sued the Nashville Board of Censors for threatening to arrest John Barton, the star of “Tobacco Road,” which was considered too provocative. And she was a champion for racial diversity providing a stage for the Fisk Jubilee Singers from HBCU Fisk University and, during the Jim Crow era, she often ignored laws meant to enforce audience segregation.

While Naff was running the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry was introduced in 1925 to radio listeners as the WSM Barn Dance. WSM was a clear-channel AM station which could be heard across 30 states. Fans flocked to the studio where it was produced. With growing demand and a lack of space, the popular broadcast moved several times before finding a home at the Ryman Auditorium on June 5, 1943.

Featuring the most popular performers of the day – including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Patsy Cline – the combination of country music and the venue’s religious foundation resulted in the moniker the “Mother Church of Country Music,” which is still in use.

But the venue was not designed to be a concert venue for multiple performers. Without air conditioning or a backstage, the male artists shared a small dressing room and ladies relegated to a restroom. Between sets, performers congregated in the wings or spilled out into the alley where they would often make their way to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

The practice is credited with creating a surge in honky tonks that have become a modern-day mainstay along Broadway in downtown Nashville.

The Opry eventually left the Ryman in 1974 for the new 4,000-seat Grand Ole Opry House on Opryland Drive, 12 miles east of Nashville. The downtown theater reverted to its original moniker and survived years of neglect before ownership changes and attention from the city’s creative community, including Emmylou Harris, launched a new revival that extended beyond the brick façade.

“They were going to tear the building down and it felt wrong to me,” recalled five-time Grammy winner Marty Stuart, who started playing the Ryman when he was 13 with Lester Flatt. “I remember going to Opry Manager Bud Wendell and said, ‘This can’t happen.’ And Emmylou jumped on and we went and made our appeal: ‘We can’t tear the Ryman down. It is sacred.’ They were going to use the bricks and make a little monument at Opryland and that felt wrong.

Flat Footing: June Carter Cash dancing on stage with The Carter Family and Chet Atkins at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium circa 1951 in Nashville, Tennessee. Bob Grannis / Getty Images

“I don’t know what he did, but Bud went behind the curtain at Gaylord and when he came out we got to keep the Ryman, and I got to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremonies. It’s a resilient house. It’s the Mother Church. You don’t tear the Vatican down.”

According to Nashville music historian Brian Mansfield, The Ryman did two things when it came back in 1994: it positioned itself as an historic venue and it sparked a major downtown revival. The venue reopened in 1994 with Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” and the stage production of “Always…Patsy Cline,” about the tender relationship between the country icon and fan Louise Seger, starring Mandy Barnett as Cline.

“I was an 18-year-old playing a place I had only heard about portraying someone that I loved that much,” recalled Barnett, who was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2021. “It’s hard to put into words, but it is spiritual. Every singer that comes to Nashville wants to play that stage. Playing the Ryman is a benchmark.”