On any given weekend in downtown Nashville, which, given its reputation, turns into a revelry of bachelorette party chaos, common travel itineraries may include concerts or sporting events at Nissan Stadium, the inebriated whirl of pedal taverns, and the irresistible pull of Broadway’s twanging guitars—highlighted by iconic spots such as Robert’s, The Stage, Old Red, and the world’s greatest honkey tonk with Garth Brooks’ name splashed on it, coming soon. There better be a neon sign involved bearing that iconic “g” in Times Roman Font towering over the street. Yet, one venue still stands tall amongst the rest, located in the heart of this vibrant, eye-candy theme park—adults only after the sunset. The famed Ryman Auditorium—the symbol of Music City’s rich heritage that casts its own shadow over the nearby skyscrapers and other monuments of hyper-growth development.
Now, delving into the annals of history, somewhere around 1892, this structure was the vision, or brainchild, of riverboat captain and businessman, Thomas G. Ryman. Originally built as a tabernacle inspired by the impassioned and fiery sermons of evangelist Samuel Jones, who was famous for his tagline, “Quit Your Meanness” and living the good life. He also preached against dancing and alcohol, basically everything Kevin Bacon fought against in Footloose. And to a lesser degree, Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy in his dance-off to save the universe. I’m not sure what Sam would think about Broadway these days, but let’s say the good Lord works in mysterious ways.
As time marched onward, The Ryman, with its red-bricked walls and echoing chambers, evolved, embracing artists and performances. And in 1943, the venue became the cherished home of the Grand Ole Opry, the longest continuous-running radio show in the United States. The age-old adage goes, the show went on, and it did, persisting with a certain resilience even during the height of COVID-19.
Yet, like any epic tale, a moment of peril arrives. Drawing from the poetic lyrics of a rather iconic 80s band, the Scorpions, the “Winds of Change” threatened to extinguish the Ryman’s legacy in the 1970s. With the Opry shifting to a new location next to a super mall, a mere ten minutes from the airport, the auditorium faced stark neglect and the looming specter of demolition. But, apparently, Nashville’s soul was intertwined with those bricks and timbers. Enter. Emmylou Harris. She spearheaded a series of concerts and fundraisers in its honor. What followed was a groundswell of public sentiment, rallying cries from fellow musicians, and a grassroots effort to save and transform the venue. Ketch Secor, of Old Crow Medicine Show fame, sums up the sentiment nicely:
“The Ryman is not just the Mother Church of Country Music but the holy-rolling spiritual epicenter of Nashville.”
And the world should be thankful. Because once a special place leaves us, resurrection becomes impossible. To quote another 80s great, Cinderella, “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.”
Why Not All that Glitters is Gold
History offers many examples of structures that seemingly should not exist. The common notion—a somewhat flawed one at that—is that the newest iteration is invariably superior to its predecessor. Yes, we learn from the past. But we forget just as much too. Enigmas remain. Scientists still grapple with how Roman Concrete bests its modern equivalents. The Pantheon, a dome with mind-boggling dimensions, should have collapsed long ago—we’re not even sure how the Roman’s mathematical calculations hold up. And for the Mother Church, the same can be said for its acoustics, a fluke of church architecture and history combined.
It’s hard to explain unless one goes to a show, but nothing sounds quite like this place. Designed in an era devoid of electronic amplification, its church-like architecture, combined with the liberal use of resonant wood, ensures a sound clarity and warmth that many argue is unrivaled—and not just in Nashville but beyond. And yes, that includes those ancient amphitheaters in Word History 101 textbooks.
Pushing aside the opinions of acoustic engineers—those who really, really know sound—the performers give their best here, feeling an intimate connection with the crowd. Maybe it’s the pews; churches are powerful. But I believe it’s more than that. As one stands within The Ryman’s hallowed walls, it’s not only the music of past legends whispering, but the echoing determination of a community that refused to let their Mother Church succumb to silence.
The Stained Glass Magic Moment
No matter the performance, I’ll glance up to the balcony halfway through any set, scanning the crowd, and marvel at the stained glass. On certain songs, under just the right conditions, the lights from cell phones reflect off panes, and I try to imagine myself as the singer beaming, at least on the inside, and howling to the heavens. And, I know, at that moment, the Almighty smiles back, obviously pleased no matter the song.
Now, you might wonder, “Who hasn’t graced this stage?” Name your favorite artist or music genre. Shereen. Swift. Styles. Old Crow. The 400 Unit. Carlile. Parton. Harris. And Cinderella too. I could keep going; one gets the idea. This place has a spirit, reminds me of an imagined cornfield in Iowa from a certain movie. Here, the Shoeless Joes of music have a Field of Dreams-esque moment three nights a week, on average. If you play it, they will come. And feel. And remember.
But despite big names packing the calendar, there’s room here. Room for the new, the hopeful.
Two years ago, I watched American Aquarium step up to the microphone for their first Ryman show. The band brought everything they had that night. During a lengthy set, the band’s frontman shared a story about how he took the afternoon tour almost ten years ago. His wife, perhaps looking toward the balcony, asked, “Honey, maybe you can play here one day?” And he looked back at her, answering, “Have you heard us play? They won’t let us anywhere near this stage.”
But after seven albums, touring across the country, and years of practice, the band made it to the show. In a place like this, dreams aren’t simply dreamt. They’re realized through hard work, time, and patience.
At least, I like to think so. Onward.
- The picture taken by my own hand, inside the Ryman, during a show.