History of the Ryman

If you were to enter the doors of the Ryman Auditorium, you would soon see that the Ryman is more than just one of Nashville’s premier music venues and more than just a tourist trap in downtown Nashville. To fans of country and bluegrass music, the Ryman is considered to be holy ground. It’s the place where Bill Monroe first gave us bluegrass music, where Johnny Cash and June Carter fell in love, where numerous country music careers were launched, where souls were saved…and where a slice of American music history also came close to being lost forever.

A tent revival that took place in 1885, which some 5,000 people attended, became the inspiration for the Ryman Auditorium, with evangelist Samuel P. Jones preaching hellfire-and-brimstone sermons that influenced people to come to Christ. One of the people who attended that revival was steamboat captain and prominent Nashville businessman Thomas G. Ryman, who went with the intention of heckling Jones, with Jones having prepared a sermon partially targeted toward Ryman that led Ryman to Christ. Ryman was so moved by the experience that he dedicated his life and fortune to building the Union Gospel Tabernacle, which was completed in 1892, a church where all could gather to worship, with Jones serving as its pastor. After Ryman’s death at the age of 63, the building was renamed in his honor as the Ryman Auditorium at his funeral on Christmas Day of 1904.

During the 1920’s, the Ryman became one of Nashville’s premier entertainment venues, going so far as to be known as the “Carnegie Hall of the South”. Some of the people who made appearances there included John Philip Sousa, Enrico Caruso, Roy Rogers, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope, Mae West, and former President Teddy Roosevelt.

But it was in 1943 that the Ryman Auditorium became forevermore cemented into the history of country music when the Grand Ole Opry made the Ryman its home, becoming the place where Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner, Patsy Cline, and many others made their Opry debuts, bringing their music to countless audiences as well as to people all across America via WSM radio, which has carried the Opry ever since its inception in 1925, with WSM buying the building from the City of Nashville in 1963 (Gaylord Entertainment bought the Ryman in 1989). In 1971, the Ryman Auditorium was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In March of 1974, the Grand Ole Opry packed up from downtown Nashville and moved out to the suburbs of Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry House, which holds almost twice as many seats as the Ryman and, unlike the Ryman, has air conditioning. In an effort to maintain continuity with the Opry’s storied past, a large circle was cut from the floor of the Ryman stage and inlaid into the center of the new Opry stage, with Roy Acuff personally overseeing the installation of said circle.

After the move to the Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman sat vacant, unused, and neglected. Twice, the Ryman came close to being destroyed, with WSM and Roy Acuff calling for its demolition soon after the Opry moved to the Grand Ole Opry House until a dedicated group of people, including then-US Senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock, both representing Tennessee, spared the Ryman from such a fate by fighting against the proposed demolition, shining it up, and giving it some love in the form of a complete renovation during the 1990s. The other time was in 1979 when, with police acting on a tip from a citizen, a car bomb weighing about 400 pounds was disarmed less than 20 minutes before it was set to go off and destroy a 3-block area of downtown Nashville that included First Baptist Church of Nashville and the Ryman, with the intended target being a nearby strip club.

In 1993, a series of renovations began in earnest to both beautify the Ryman, inside and out, and add many modern amenities that have made it into a truly first-class concert and performance venue. After the renovation was completed in 1994, the first post-renovation performance was Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”. Beginning in November of 1999, the Grand Ole Opry moved all of its November, December, and January shows back to the Ryman. In mid-2010, the Grand Ole Opry House suffered from a massive flood, forcing it to shut down while it was being restored. For the five months during which the Opry House was closed for repairs, the Ryman Auditorium, on several occasions, served as one of several backup venues for the Grand Ole Opry. In 2015, the Ryman was renovated yet again, with much of the 1994 renovation being gutted and remodeled.

Other notable performances and events held at the Ryman Auditorium include the following:

Country Music Association Awards shows from 1968 through 1973
Most episodes of ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show (active from 1969 through 1971) were taped at the Ryman
In 1999, the southern gospel group The Cathedrals taped their Farewell Celebration video at the Ryman
In 2006, Josh Turner recorded a live album at the Ryman
In 2012, former Beatles member Ringo Starr recorded his 72nd birthday concert with his All-Starr Band at the Ryman
In 2014, the Foo Fighters performed at the Ryman
In 2016, Garth Brooks, who has been a prominent country star since 1986, performed at the Ryman for the first time ever in his career, promoting “The Garth Channel” on SiriusXM Radio.
In 2018, smooth jazz vocalist Anita Baker, as part of her Farewell Tour, performed at the Ryman
In 2019, Wu Tang Clan, a hip-hop group from New York City, performed the first ever rap concert at the Ryman