The Ryman Auditorium is one of the most historic buildings in country music. Step inside the doors and you can feel the history in the building, a landmark that’s hosted the biggest legends in country music on its stage. It’s my favorite building in Nashville, a place that leaves me in awe every time I step inside and see the sun shining through its stained glass windows.
But did you know that years ago, it was on the verge of being torn down?
First let’s take a quick look at the history of the Ryman.
The building was constructed by Thomas Ryman, a riverboat captain and saloon owner who wanted a place for the famous preacher Sam P. Jones to hold his revivals in Nashville.
Named the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the historic building first opened its doors to worshipers in 1892 – before it even had a roof. Total construction costs were around $100,000, or almost $3 million in today’s money, and the Tabernacle held 6,000 people after the addition of a balcony. (The capacity was later reduced to 3,000 after a stage was added).
After Thomas Ryman passed away in 1904, Sam Jones proposed that the building be renamed in Ryman’s honor – something Ryman had resisted when it was first proposed.
The Ryman continued to host religious events after its namesake’s death, but it was also rented out for non-religious events as well so that it could remain open and operating.
The Opry had bounced around from venue to venue after starting out in the studios of WSM, the radio station started by the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in an attempt to boost their insurance business. And in 1943, it was asked to leave its current home at the War Memorial Auditorium after rowdy crowds kept damaging the upholstered seats.
So when Opry management went looking for a new home, the Ryman – with its wooden benches that would be safe from destruction – was the perfect home.
The Ryman hosted its first Grand Ole Opry performance on June 5, 1943.
And for the next 31 years, the Opry continued to host the biggest names in all of country music from the Mother Church of Country Music – everyone from Hank Williams and Roy Acuff to Johnny Cash, George Jones and Loretta Lynn. Elvis even made his first – and only – appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium.
But by the late 1960s, the Opry had outgrown the Ryman, and both fans and performers alike complained about the conditions inside the then-70 year old building. It lacked a backstage area and dressing rooms for artists, and the lack of air conditioning made the heat unbearable during the summer months.
And despite the Ryman’s location in an area of town that was (at the time) less than desirable, crowds flocked to the Opry in such large numbers that lines formed up and down the block. There were even times when promoter Roy Acuff would get so drunk that he would oversell tickets and audience members would have to pack onto the stage with the performers.
It was time for the Opry to find a new home.
The National Life & Accident Insurance Company bought some farmland east of downtown and began construction on a new home for their prized radio show – and in 1974, the Grand Ole Opry officially moved out of the Ryman Auditorium and into their new home at the Grand Ole Opry House.
With the Ryman now standing vacant in downtown Nashville, owners made plans to demolish the building and use its materials to construct a chapel at the new Opryland amusement park. Consultants had concluded that the Ryman contained “nothing of value” and wasn’t worth restoring. Even Roy Acuff was vocal about wanting the Ryman torn down.
But the opposition to the Ryman’s destruction was fierce, and even included Tennessee’s two US Senators begging owners to save the building from the wrecking ball.
The building was ultimately spared from destruction – and instead, it just sat vacant and deteriorating.
In 1983, the Ryman was acquired by Gaylord Entertainment in a sale that included the new Opryland as well as the National Life & Accident Insurance Company’s radio station, WSM.
And in the late 1980s, work began to be done to improve the Ryman’s structure and exterior. But the interior remained untouched and decaying.
Then in 1991, country music superstar Emmylou Harris dissolved her band, The Hot Band, and brought on an entirely new band of acoustic musicians called The Nash Ramblers. (This band included Jon Randall, the singer and producer who joined Miranda Lambert and Jack Ingram to create The Marfa Tapes in 2021, on guitar, as well as bluegrass legend Sam Bush).
The newly-formed band wanted to record an album, and wanted to do it in front of a live audience. But at the time, there weren’t many venues to choose from.
So they decided to see if they could use the Mother Church.
Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers got permission to perform three live shows at the Ryman, the building’s first public performances in over 20 years. But because the Ryman was in such disrepair, audience members weren’t allowed to sit on or under the balcony – which limited the crowd to around 200 people each night.
The band played a setlist that included Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” and Stephen Foster’s classic “Hard Times,” along with songs from bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.
In discussing the album, Harris says that part of what made it so special was that the recordings they made were the first time the band had ever played those songs for an audience:
“The important part of what would set that album apart was that the first time we ever played those songs for an audience we would record them.
Later down the line (a song) might be technically better. But there’s nothing like the excitement of playing it onstage for people the first time.”
At the Ryman was released in January 1992, and would go on to win a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
But more importantly, it reignited interest in the Ryman Auditorium.
People began to realize the historical significance of the outdated old building, and soon an $8.5 million renovation was underway. Dressing rooms and a backstage area were added, along with air conditioning, all while preserving the unmatched acoustics that made the Ryman such a popular place among both artists and fans.
The renovated Ryman Auditorium re-opened to the public on June 4, 1994. And the Grand Ole Opry returned to the Ryman for the first time in over 20 years for a benefit show on October 8, 1998.
After the success of the Opry’s return to its former home (and partly due to the construction of the new Opry Mills Mall directly adjacent to the Grand Ole Opry House), the decision was made for the Opry to return to the Ryman for three months starting in November 1999.
The winter Opry shows at the Ryman were such a success that the Opry returned to the Mother Church for three months every year until the COVID pandemic eliminated live audiences from the Opry in 2020.
The Ryman’s stage has also since been replaced, with reinforced beams to increase the stage’s load capacity – although an 18-inch band of the original stage was kept during the upgrade.
And the Ryman now served as the centerpiece of a revived downtown Nashville entertainment district, hosting residencies and shows for some of the biggest artists in the world – from Garth Brooks and Tyler Childers to Old Crow Medicine Show and Jason Isbell.
The Ryman Auditorium will turn 130 years old in 2022. It was once staring demolition in the face, and now it’s known as one of the most iconic and historic music venues in the United States, with artists from every genre expressing their gratitude and awe when they finally have the opportunity to step out onto the Ryman’s stage for the first time.
And it wouldn’t be possible if Emmylou Harris hadn’t decided to record her live album from the Mother Church of Country Music 30 years ago.