Bluegrass Trails | The Ryman Auditorium

Part of the mygrassisblue.com Bluegrass Trails series, on the trail of bluegrass history & its pioneers/early protagonists.

Just a block from the bars, dance halls & hell-raisin’ honky-tonks of Nashville’s neon-heavy Lower Broadway, where Music City USA becomes Nashvegas, is the iconic Ryman Auditorium. The venerated ‘Mother Church of Country Music’ was the permanent home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974 and it was upon its hallowed stage in late 1945 that, it is said, bluegrass was born.

The statue to Bill Monroe, The Father of Bluegrass, outside the Ryman Auditorium in Downtown Nashville, Tennessee. October 16, 2017.

Birth of Bluegrass
It was upon the Ryman Auditorium stage in December 1945 that the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Bill Monroe presented to the world the sound of a new musical genre. When Monroe’s rapid-fire mandolin and ‘high lonesome’ vocals were joined by Earl Scruggs’ virtuosic & innovative signature three-finger style of banjo playing, Lester Flatt’s guitar and vocals, Chubby Wise’s fiddle, and Howard Watts’ bass, ‘bluegrass’, as it was to become known, was born. Today, bluegrass remains a staple on venerated stage where it started.

The external facade of the Ryman Auditorium, The Mother Church of Country Music, in Downtown Nashville, Tennessee. October 16, 2017.

Union Gospel Tabernacle
A much venerated Nashville landmark today, the redbrick Union Gospel Tabernacle opened in 1892 as a house of worship. It was renamed the Ryman Auditorium in 1904 following the death of Thomas Green Ryman (1841-1904), a prominent riverboat captain and Nashville businessman who was the central figure in devoting generous contributions of both time and money to the building’s construction. Put to use as a venue for a wide variety of events, the auditorium gained a reputation as the region’s preeminent performance hall, unintentionally given the fact that it wasn’t designed as such – it only received its first stage in 1901, almost 2 decades after its opening. However, it was as the venue for the Grand Ole Opry, the popular live radio show that had outgrown several local venues since its inception in 1925, that really put the Ryman on the map, the building gaining national recognition as the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’ by playing to packed audiences every week of the Opry‘s 1943-1974 Ryman residence. Included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 (& designated a National Historic Landmark in 2001), it sat largely abandoned for 2 decades following the Opry‘s 1974 departure to a new, custom-built venue, before opening once again in 1994 as a performance venue following major renovations. Another $14M restoration followed 2 decades later in 2015, ushering in a new commercial-driven campaign to market the historic auditorium to visitors as ‘The Soul of Nashville’ and somewhere that has been ‘Historically Cool Since 1892’.

The interior of the Ryman Auditorium in Downtown Nashville, Tennessee. October 16, 2017.

The Soul of Nashville
Undoubtedly looking all the better for the extensive 2015 renovation (the shaded interior still evokes that of a church thanks to the reproduced stained glass windows & pews), but the experience of visiting the Ryman today is a vastly different, much less intimate experience to one I got while undertaking the DIY tour back in 2003, when I recall being the only person poking around the auditorium’s innards. Visually not much about the Ryman has changed in the intervening 15 years, but it’s a much busier place these days, the present-day Ryman’s The Soul of Nashville experience that visitors have no choice but to buy into both very popular & seemingly hellbent on recouping as much as possible of the $14M spent on the aforementioned renovation. The tour is still self-guided, there’s plenty to read on the history of the building itself, and The Soul of Nashville theater experience video that begins every tour is both brilliantly conceived & innovatively presented. And, of course, there’s that aura about the place. It’s unmistakable. All that said, it – the Ryman’s The Soul of Nashville experience – is just a tad too commercialised for my liking – you have to pay extra on top of the already expensive entrance fee to have your photo taken on the hallowed Ryman stage, just one step too far for me.

The interior of the Ryman Auditorium in Downtown Nashville, Tennessee. October 16, 2017.