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The Grand Ole Opry: The Ryman Years

 

 This is a tale of two historic and enduring country music institutions based in Nashville, Tennessee. The Grand Ole Opry-the longest running live radio broadcast in America and Ryman Auditorium-where the Opry called home for thirty years. Today they are still today so closely related in the public mind, they are often considered the one and the same. The two are like a close-knit family who have endured despite conflict, controversy and financial struggle. Together, they form a unique nucleus of history and culture in a town that has come to be known as Music City U.S.A. And if this is so, then, both the Opry and the Ryman are at the center of Nashville’s heart and have been witness to the birth of the best in American music over the last century.  

But, remember this: The Grand Ole Opry is a radio show; Ryman Auditorium is the place where the show was held for thirty years.  They thrived separate of each other prior to their union as well as after their parting. Today they reunite every so often as natural as two rivers that flow side by side and at times, cross each other’s stream.

According to Dan Rogers, Director of Marketing & Communications and co-author of the book, Backstage at the Opry, the linking of the two institutions is not necessarily a bad thing. “It speaks volumes that the two are still so closely connected in people’s minds after so many years,” explains Rogers.

 The Grand Ole Opry, which is celebrating its 90th year on November 28th, as a Nashville-based radio program, has several distinctions that make it something to honor and celebrate.  It is the longest running radio show in the world. The Opry, broadcast on station WSM, has helped launch the careers of countless country music legends including Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. In country music today there is still a sense of pride to be invited to join its elite membership.   

Then there is Ryman Auditorium. It is a simple yet elegant building which stands deceptively unadorned or worn by time. At one-hundred and twenty-three years old, standing in the heart of Nashville just above Broadway, it is one of America’s oldest halls of music and entertainment. Inside, its spiral staircase that reaches up to the balcony is reminiscent of Southern architecture of the Civil War era. 

However, it was not built for secular pleasure. It was first built as a religious venue-a Protestant church devoted to revival meetings during an era when religious fever was at its hottest in American history.  It eventually became the cultural hub of early 20th century Nashville. 

Because of its years as the home of The Grand Ole Opry, the vintage building is today commonly referred to as “The Mother Church of Country Music.” No one denies this as a worthy title for the old auditorium.  Inside the hall, the rows of bench seating wraps around the length of stage to provide a clear view from each church pew. The acoustics were made to carry the booming voice of fire and brimstone preachers without the aid of electricity. Today, the same acoustics permeate the hall.

When the Grand Ole Opry called Ryman Auditorium home from 1943 until 1974, it was a far from perfect union. The Ryman had only one make-shift dressing room, no air-conditioning and not long after moving in, could not hold the audience demand for the popular Opry broadcast. But, it was during those years the show grew into a nationally popular entertainment paving the way for the world outside of the Deep South to experience country music for the first time. Today it is known as the ‘show that made country music famous.’ According to Rogers, “It was during those years that country music was defined by key  artists while performing on the Opry at the Ryman. Legends like Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette and George Jones helped to make country music what it is today as members of the Opry.”  

The Opry’s premiere broadcast was on November 28, 1925.  An obscure AM Nashville radio station, WSM, created primarily to sell insurance, booked a show produced by a broadcaster who introduced himself as “Judge Hay” (aka George Hay).  He called it “The WSM Barn Dance.”  His goal was to bring old time music to radio featuring fiddles, guitars and singers of folk ballads. His first guest on the show was a 78-year-old fiddler named, Uncle Jimmy Thompson.  The show was a hit and soon became a fixture every Saturday night.  

How did the Opry get its name? In 1927, then two-year old WSM Barn Dance went national when it was scheduled to follow NBC’s Music Appreciation Hour, a radio broadcast devoted to classical music and grand opera. Old Judge Hay considered the contrast between the higher brow music of the preceding show and the earthiness of the music he was about to present.  He then introduced the first artist to appear on the nationwide broadcast of the show, “Harmonica Wizard,” DeFord Baily. The musician played a stirring and engaging song about passenger trains called, “The Pan-American.” After Baily finished, Hays announced, “For the past hour we’ve been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera. From now on we will present, The Grand Ole Opry.”  The name stuck.

Among the first performers to play during the 20’s were banjo player and comedian, Uncle Dave Macon, The Crook Brothers, The Brinkley Brothers & Their Dixie Clodhoppers and Ed Poplin & his Barn Dance Orchestra. During the 1930’s the show began broadcasting at 50,000 watts allowing it to be sent all over the United States. In 1939, the show was picked up by NBC for a regular nationwide broadcast.

However, by 1942 the Opry show had outgrown five of its previous homes. WSM began looking for something more permanent. 

Enter Ryman Auditorium. Built by a riverboat captain and magnate, Thomas Ryman, it was completed in 1892. After attending a tent revival meeting with the intention of heckling the preacher, he was converted. Ryman became a fervent Christian believer. He was so zealous, he decided to build a large auditorium to replace the rugged sweat-soaked revival tents endured by the crowds over the years. Upon completion in 1892, the building was named Union Gospel Tabernacle in order to brand its holy intentions. It took another five years to build the balcony, which was completed just in time for a meeting of the United Confederate Veterans. Today, the balcony is known as Confederate Gallery. Although several times over the years, Nashville businessmen and politicians tried to name the hall after Thomas Ryman, he refused to allow it. But, when he died in 1904, it was officially named, Ryman Auditorium.       

After Ryman’s passing the building was still used for religious purposes, however, it remained dark most of the time. Due to financial strains, it was soon leased by a single-parent and widow-turned booking agent/promotor, named Lula C. Naff.  She was not just an ordinary business lady. She was a feisty entrepreneur and visionary. She used the hall for commercially viable events such as speaking engagements, concerts, boxing matches and plays.   As the religious services made a final exit, the auditorium became a cultural center for Nashville.  Naff oversaw the booking of sought-after lecturers, and major celebrities and entertainers. The famous names who graced its stage could easily read like a Who’s Who in American history. Included in its impressive roster during the pre-Opry years at the Ryman are W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Harry Houdini, John Phillip Sousa, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt & William Taft, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.

But, Lula Naff was also an activist. Accordingly, she was a force to be reckoned with in a legal battle. During her tenure, she took on the local censors for attempting to curb the language and subject matter presented at the hall.  She won these legal battles. She also went up against Jim Crow.  While many of the shows in the South were segregated, Naff defied the law and allowed integrated attendance to shows at the Ryman.

The fact that it became the regular venue for Fisk Jubilee Singers-a famous vocal group from the local all-African-American college, speaks volumes of how progressive Neff’s booking practices were during those years when racism was the rule of law in Tennessee.

In 1943, The Grand Ole Opry, suffering severe growing pains, found its home at Ryman Auditorium. It was a meeting for the ages. The move opened the door to the golden age of country music. Over the next thirty years The Opry at Ryman Auditorium saw the debut of some of the most important artists in country music history. To name a few: In 1945, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys debuted their new banjo player, Earl Scruggs and introduced a new form of music called bluegrass.  In 1949, a 25 year-old singer-songwriter named Hank Williams took the stage and sang “Lovesick Blues.” The audience called him back for a record-breaking six encores of his hit song, “Lovesick Blues.”In 1954, before he broke out nationally, Elvis Presley performed at the Opry. In 1956, Johnny Cash became a member. It was backstage at the Opry where Cash met his future wife, June Carter. In 1960, Patsy Cline became an Opry member and brought a new kind of country class to the show when she sang her hit song, “Crazy” written by a young Texas DJ named Willie Nelson.  It was also during these years that Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Porter Wagoner became a country music institutions around town. The list goes on and on.

44 year Opry member and legendary country singer-songwriter ‘Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, during a recent phone interview, recalled his first time to the Opry at the Ryman during these formative years.  

“My mom and dad took me to the Opry the first time. I was 14 years old in high school. WSM used to call themselves, The Air Castle of the South.” He explained. “So, I thought the Grand Ole Opry was in an actual castle out in some big field. Instead we come to this seedy part of Nashville. And the curtain had big hole in it! My castle had a hole in it! We had seats downstairs under the balcony. The show was sold out and the people in there were like sardines. My mom had bought a new dress for going to the Opry. Somebody in the balcony spilled a coke and it came dripping on my mom’s dress..and she couldn’t move!  But, we enjoyed the show. She fell in love with Carl Smith,” Anderson remembers.

In 1969, when Johnny Cash was riding the top of the charts with his successful cross-over album, Live at San Quentin, he was given a television show to be taped before a live audience. The network wanted to tape the show locally in Southern California, but Cash insisted the series be broadcast from Ryman Auditorium.

From 1969 until 1971, thanks to Johnny Cash, the Ryman was featured on a nation-wide weekly television broadcast.  The show brought in diverse guests, often selected by Cash, to perform including Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Neil Young and Derek and the Dominoes.

Without a doubt two of the most unique artists to appear on the Ryman stage during those years, when the Nashville establishment trusted few artists outside of their own, were Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong. It was a radical and bold move on Cash’s part.

Dylan, after spending four years recuperating from a near-death motorcycle accident chose to make his first televised appearance since his accident on Johnny Cash’s show and on the Ryman stage.  His re-entry back into the public spotlight after years of obscurity only added new history to the auditorium. As he sang, he must have been aware that he was standing in the very spot where Hank Williams once performed for audiences 20 years earlier.

In the fall of 1970, Louis Armstrong was near the end of his life. He had released an album of country standards done in his own unique New Orleans jazz style. As a result, he appeared on the Johnny Cash Show to promote the new album. During the broadcast Cash took that opportunity to recall the 1930 session Louis Armstrong shared with one of the original founders of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. Armstrong and Rodgers recorded a song together called, “Blue Yodel #9.” On that that October night in 1970, Louis Armstrong made one of his last public appearances on the stage of Ryman Auditorium with Johnny Cash recreating his horn solo from a 1930 session with his old friend, the Sinnging Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers.  

At the same time, the Grand Ole Opry was moving along weekly at the Ryman. But, the show had outgrown the hall many years before. With no air conditioning and only one dressing room, the auditorium became regarded as a hardship for many of its stars.  Even the most famous acts were known to simply wait in the wings before going onstage. Other, more rebellious performers, like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings walked down the block to Tootsie’s Bar to wait for their time to go on stage.  When tourists came to town, through word-of-mouth, they knew to go to Tootsie’s to meet up with Tom T Hall or Willie Nelson. These artists preferred the bar to waiting in the wings at the Ryman. It had been reported over the years that many artists began to hate to go to the Ryman. 

According to Bill Anderson,

“Hate is too strong a word. It had its inconveniences. In 1961, when I joined the show, it was pretty primitive. The dressing room was always crowded. You might have two or three bands waiting there. Whenever there were overflow crowds they used to take them and have them stand in the wings by the stage. So, if you’re performing you’d look behind you on stage and there’d be an audience. But these performers were used to these kinds of conditions.”    

Anderson, who has the honor of being a surviving Opry member who remembers the Ryman years well, spoke with fondness and good humor of his years at the Ryman. When asked who he believed the quintessential Opry entertainers were, he said it was a tie.

 

“Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff. Here’s how American Roy Acuff was in his time. During WW11 the enemy soldiers would shout out, “To hell with baseball, to hell with Abraham Lincoln, to hell with Roy Acuff!”   That’s quite a thing, but what it tells me is that Roy Acuff’s name was synonymous with the Opry.  So was Minnie Pearl. She was just a delightful lady. So funny and also, really a very intelligent and caring lady. A humanitarian, though she never advertised it.”

Not surprisingly, when Anderson was asked to name the greatest songwriter on the Opry during the Ryman years, his answer was quick and to the point, “Hank Williams,” he said without missing a beat. He then also recalled a personal and precious memory, “Today in the new Opry house, each dressing room has a theme.  My dressing room’s theme is “It All Begins with a Song.”  Then, it has pictures of some of the great songwriters of Opry history. One of the first pictures there is a photograph of young, clean cut Willie Nelson in a mohair suit. I think I could make more money than I make at the Opry just betting folks they can’t tell me who that young, short-haired man is in that photo. The other great Opry songwriter I’d point to would be Dolly Parton.” It should be noted that Bill Anderson himself is a fine songwriting who has recently experienced a career revival with collaborations with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon. He has charted country songs for seven consecutive decades with the award winning song co-written with Jamey Johnson, "Just Give It Away," scoring a huge success for George Strait. 

Dan Rogers frames Opry history and most specifically, the Ryman years, in terms of a family. “There was always a strong sense of family among the performers at the Opry, even when things were rough and uncomfortable at the Ryman." When Dan Rogers was asked to name the quintessential Opry performer he said,

“I’d have to say, Little Jimmy Dickens.  He was always there. We could ask anything of him and he was always willing. Not only was he a comedian, but he was a great country singer and fine songwriter. But, for example, on St. Patrick’s Day, he was willing to come in costume as a leprechaun. He was always there and he was a special presence during the Ryman years from Hank Williams’ debut on.” 

According to Rogers the Opry at the Ryman became a place for passages as well. Not only did these years witness the debut of country music legends like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn, but it became a place to gather for grief. This happened when Patsy Cline and her manager were killed in a plane crash in 1962. The Opry at the Ryman was the place to go for the public to honor the memory of one of country music's great artists.

 The crowds and demand for tickets continued to be a problem. By 1974, the Grand Ole Opry said farewell to the Ryman in favor of moving into their own new, modern home. While it was a parting that made sense, it was also bittersweet for audiences and performers who had lived out so much history at the beloved hall.  Comedian Minnie Pearl openly wept during the final show. 

The Ryman lay dormant for years following the Opry’s exit. As the show grew to even greater popularity, its old home of thirty years was threatened with demolition. The radio station WSM, proposed tearing it down and using its bricks for a prayer chapel in their new amusement park, Opryland. The owners of The Grand Ole Opry feared the building still standing would take away business from their new and expensive Opry house.

The fact that it was registered as a national historic site, after several political battles were waged, ultimately saved the building from demolition.

The controversy gave singer-songwriter, John Hartford a new song in 1971, “(They’re Gonna) Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry,” lamenting the building’s demise.

Decades went by with the building only being used as a location for movies like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Clint Eastwood’s Honky Tonk Man

With the rumblings of possible demolition still in the political air around Nashville in the decades that followed, it took a country music icon to turn things around. In 1991 and 1992, Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers recorded a live album during a series of concerts at the decaying hall. Her intent was to raise the money to help save the historic building. She succeeded. The critical and popular acclaim for the album revived interest in the auditorium.

In 1993, Gaylord Entertainment restored the old building back to its original glory. And with the restoration came air conditioning.  Today, the Ryman is host to a full calendar of top draw concerts throughout the year.  It is also home to the annual Americana Music Honors and Awards show staged by the Americana Music Association which includes performances by artists like Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale and of course, Emmylou Harris.

 Appropriately enough, the first show at the new Ryman was a broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.  Ironically, Keillor told his audience that he was inspired to create Prairie Home Companion when he was reporting on the final Opry show at the Ryman in 1974.

Today, The Grand Ole Opry thrives in its new home with all of the modern conveniences lacking at the old Ryman Auditorium. The show is now internationally famous. It continues to introduce new talent as well as gives veteran country music artists the spotlight. It’s not unusual to find Connie Smith on the same show with Carrie Underwood. The Grand Ole Opry now presents special shows throughout they year at the Ryman called Opry Country Classics hosted by Larry Gatlin. As the busy tourist season closes in Nashville, the Opry's broadcast will continue to be held at the Ryman until the end of the year. So, it all comes full circle as the Ryman and the Opry are reunited again.

In the fall of 2013, I toured Ryman auditorium. It still holds its Southern charm. It felt haunting, stirring, and strangely comforting to walk its staircase, sit in the balcony and stand on the stage where so much music became history. I closed my eyes and could almost hear the blue voice of Hank Williams and caterwaul of Minnie Pearl as she gleefully shouted, “Howdy!!” There is a vintage and simple elegance still vibrantly present there.  The Ryman today is as romantic as it is spellbinding, as if the ghostly saints of the Grand Ole Opry’s past still watch over the venerable hall. If they do, their stories and heavenly music sing harmony to comfort and bless its antique stage.  In this sense, it will always be the home of the Opry: A jeweled remnant of the golden years of America’s longest and grandest running live radio broadcast.

The Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium will never be entirely separate, so entwined are they in the history and spirit of the music. In my last few moments looking down at the dimly lit stage from Confederate Gallery, it was clear this is the true home of The Grand Ole Opry and it will forever be the Mother Church of Country Music.