Perhaps no other single structure among Nashville’s buildings so epitomizes Music City’s spirit as the Ryman Auditorium. Recognized around the world as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman is best known for having hosted the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly radio show, for decades. However, the history of the Ryman transcends genres and is closely intertwined with the history of Nashville itself.
The red-brick Victorian Gothic auditorium at 116 Fifth Avenue North in downtown Nashville. Tennessee might appear out-of-place today, nestled among office towers, a sprawling convention center, and a futuristic sports arena. The AT&T Tower, the city’s other signature edifice, rises 600 feet above the city just a block away. But if the modern visitor wanders down Fifth Avenue to the row of honky-tonks which still line Lower Broadway, one can imagine the sense of wonder and excitement the Ryman Auditorium inspired in music lovers half a century or more ago.
Built in 1891, the Union Gospel Tabernacle—its original name—would have appeared impressive but certainly not out of place to Nashville residents or visitors in the late 19th Century. At that time, Nashville was a dense, busy city of chockablock warehouses, narrow stores, and elegant three- and four-story townhouses. The elaborate brickwork, rusticated base, lancet windows, and other elaborate architectural details featured on the tabernacle would not have been especially startling at the turn of the 20th Century. Many downtown homes, only a handful of which have survived, were also architecturally notable. The purpose and role of the tabernacle, however, would symbolize and embody the spirit of the growing Southern city.
It seems appropriate that what is perhaps Nashville’s most iconic building was erected primarily for religious purposes. The Athens of the South, as the city was known, already boasted a high number of churches when a renewed revivalism swept the nation in the 1880s. Sam Jones, the preeminent evangelist of the era, led a series of revivals in Nashville in 1885 and 1889. In his History of the Ryman Auditorium, Jerry Henderson paints a picture of Jones’s evangelism:
In Jones’ sermons, the issues all became very clear and simple. The enemies of Christianity were those who indulged in, or condoned, dancing, card-playing, gambling, circuses, swearing, theater-going, billiards, baseball, low-cut dresses, society balls, novel reading, social climbing, prostitution and, above all else, drinking alcoholic beverages (18).
Apparently the city of Nashville was hungry to hear these lessons, or perhaps was starved for any sort of collective entertainment (as Jones’s sermons were considered by some in the city). At any rate, the masses poured out to hear Jones proclaim the Gospel. No existing structures in the city could accommodate the thousands who flocked to hear Jones preach, so the preacher’s revivals were typically held outdoors under large tents.
Whether to disrupt services or out of simple curiosity, prominent riverboat captain Thomas Ryman attended one of Jones’s sermons on May 10, 1885. This date became a seminal moment in Nashville history: Ryman experienced a religious experience at the service and dedicated himself to constructing a venue large enough for Jones to preach the gospel indoors. Ryman’s determination and drive, which ultimately mobilized the people of Nashville, resulted in the Union Gospel Tabernacle’s opening seven years later (though some events were held during the building’s construction).
Though Jones and Ryman himself wanted the building to be used exclusively for religious or educational purposes, the lack of similarly-sized alternative venues in town resulted in the scheduling of a full slate of events at the Tabernacle. The period in which Jones and other evangelists were popular was also the time of the Chautauqua and Lyceum movements throughout the United States, which brought lecturers and various artistic demonstrations to the tabernacle.
A particularly noteworthy event in the early history of the Union Gospel Tabernacle occurred when Nashville hosted Tennessee’s centennial celebration in 1897. Many national organizations planned their annual conventions to coincide with this occasion. Though Centennial Park hosted the majority of the events for the centennial exposition, none of the temporary structures at the centennial grounds could accommodate large gatherings. To provide for the reunion of the Confederate veterans, the previously planned but never completed balcony at the Tabernacle was fast-tracked. Second-floor seating greatly increased the building’s capacity and its allure for future convention planners. The trustees of the building named this addition the “Confederate Gallery” to honor those guests whose visit had finally sparked interest in finishing a vital aspect of Captain Ryman’s vision.
For a building known primarily as a cradle of country music, the Ryman has hosted an exceptionally diverse slate of performers. The Ryman’s classical music and theatrical glory days were conducted under the tutelage of Mrs. Lula Naff. During Naff’s tenure between 1904 and 1955, the legendary theater manager brought such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, and Marian Anderson to the Ryman stage. Naff also booked stars such as Katherine Hepburn (in The Philadelphia Story) and Helen Hayes (in Victoria Regina).
But 1943 marked a major transition moment in the Ryman’s history: the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly live country music radio show which began in 1925, moved to the already-storied Fifth Avenue venue from the War Memorial Auditorium a few blocks away. The Ryman would officially be renamed the “Grand Ole Opry House” in 1963 and continue its residency there until 1974, when the new (and current) Opry House was constructed several miles from downtown. The Opry radio show did not broadcast from the Ryman from 1974 until 1999, when the show began its annual pilgrimages to the building so closely associated with its history.
Just as the Confederate Gallery and the auditorium pews have welcomed guests for over a century, the legacy of individuals like Thomas Ryman and Lula Naff live on at the storied structure. The Ryman Auditorium fills a unique niche in the Nashville community, providing an intimate alternative to more recent additions to the city’s musical scene. World-class acts continue to ply their trade here, and the Grand Ole Opry returns home annually to the “Mother Church of Country Music” for limited engagements.
Eiland, William U. Nashville’s Mother Church: The History of the Ryman Auditorium. Old Hickory, Tennessee: Opryland USA, 1992.
Gossett, Charmaine B., ed. Captain Tom Ryman: His Life and Legacy. Franklin, Tennessee: Hillsboro Press, 2001.
Henderson, Jerry. “Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly v. 27 no.4, Winter 1968.
Henderson, Jerry E. A History of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee: 1892-1920. Diss. Louisiana State University, 1962. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1962.
Waller, William, ed. Nashville in the 1890s. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1970.