If a band headlined the Ryman Auditorium and didn’t record the show, did it really happen? These days, it seems like everyone is releasing live albums captured on the historic Nashville stage. Old Crow Medicine Show and Brothers Osborne will both release concert LPs titled Live at the Ryman in October, the latest entries in a trend that stretches back to Emmylou Harris’ quintessential At the Ryman in 1992 and beyond. Here’s the 10 must-hear Ryman concert albums.
Harris and her all-star acoustic band staged a jubilant revival of the hallowed but dilapidated venue 100 years after it first opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Their live concert, immersed in music celebrating the Ryman’s honky-tonk, bluegrass, and gospel history, would lay the groundwork for restoring the Ryman to its former glory. As a live album it’s a marvel; as a document of the event that helped spur Nashville’s interest in saving its most famous building, it’s nothing short of extraordinary. S.B.
Few contemporary artists are as closely linked to the Ryman Auditorium as Jason Isbell. The Americana kingpin has been staging annual residencies at the venue since 2014 (he’ll return for seven shows this October), and preserved his 2017 run on Live From the Ryman, a record that plays like a greatest hits collection in concert form. Isbell’s unmatched songwriting is at the fore — especially on the euphoric “Hope the High Road” and the brutal “Elephant” — but it’s the playing of the 400 Unit that makes this one required listening. On tracks like “Last of My Kind,” where Isbell, guitarist Sadler Vaden, and fiddle player Amanda Shires trade intricate licks, it’s the sound of a band tapping into the magic of a historic room. J.H.
As unlikely as it sounds, the British synth-pop duo Erasure demonstrated the transformative power of the Ryman on their DVD and album On the Road to Nashville, the culmination of a 2007 acoustic tour. Gone are the synthesizers and pulsing drum machines that have powered most of their work, replaced by a band of musicians ready to dish out some country licks. Part of the fun is in the surprise: the dance jam “Blue Savannah” gets recast as bluegrass hoedown, the stately “Oh L’amour” gets a weeping pedal steel part, and “Victim of Love” is turned into a swinging rockabilly number, with the audience’s cheers momentarily delayed as they try to figure out which of their favorite songs they’re hearing. J.F.
Indie rock band Band of Horses found the pull of the Ryman irresistible, stripping down for an acoustic album recorded onstage at the Mother Church in 2013. In this setting, their trademark cavernous rock sounds cozy and intimate, like a living-room jam between a group of friends. Some songs, like the country-leaning “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone,” are more or less true to the originals. Others go through more radical updates: “No One’s Gonna Love You,” originally a full-band track drenched in reverb, is rendered as a solo acoustic number. And in their beloved “The Funeral,” a piano handles the song’s tense, heart-tugging arpeggios with some assistance from cello, letting Ben Bridwell’s otherworldly voice lift it all the way to the stained-glass windows at the back. J.F.
The indefatigable Helm took his Midnight Ramble concerts from his barn in upstate New York to the Mother Church in 2008. Wisely, someone decided to record the proceedings, resulting in this 2011 release, which runs the gamut from traditionals like “Deep Ellum Blues” to the Band’s “Ophelia” and “The Shape I’m In.” While the Ryman may have lacked the down-home feel of Helm’s rustic barn, it spiritually reconnected the Arkansas native with the music he’d listen to as a kid on the Grand Ole Opry. J.H.
While never released as an album, director Jonathan Demme’s concert film is essential to any list of Ryman Auditorium performances. Heart of Gold captures Neil Young in all his ragged glory as he performs his 2005 album Prairie Wind in full. But the movie also satisfies the casual fan, with Young delivering intense readings of “hits” like “Harvest Moon,” “Old Man,” and “Heart of Gold.” Bonus: Ryman regular Emmylou Harris makes an appearance. J.H.
In celebration of their 50th year as a band, the esteemed country-rock band Nitty Gritty Dirt Band called up a few of their pals for an all-star recording on the Ryman stage. Circlin’ Back, the document of that concert, has multiple nods to NGDB’s landmark 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which brought titans of country and bluegrass including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, and Earl Scruggs into the studio for new versions of traditional tunes and country classics. The wide-ranging guest list on Circlin’ Back includes John Prine singing “Paradise,” Jackson Browne (who was briefly a member the band) singing “These Days,” and country stalwarts Alison Krauss and Vince Gill pitching in on several songs. It’s a freewheeling, fun set that even includes a romp through “Fishin’ in the Dark,” NGDB’s biggest country hit, with former group member Jimmy Ibbotson. J.F.
One of traditional country’s most ardent ambassadors is also one of the genre’s most charismatic entertainers. Having debuted on the Ryman stage as a member of bluegrass icon Lester Flatt’s band at just 13 years old, Stuart’s allegiance to the Mother Church of Country Music remains as inspired and hillbilly-rock-solid as the musicianship of his aptly named band. The freewheeling bluegrass effort earns bonus points for spotlighting guests Charlie Cushman on banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Dobro master “Uncle Josh” Graves, who died not long after its release. S.B.
A historical marker outside the Ryman denotes the December 1945 appearance there of Bill Monroe and his band — including Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — as the event that gave birth to bluegrass. Contemporary bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and her band, the Rage, have made their own indelible mark on the genre, paying loving homage to its origins with legendary performers Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman, Bobby Osborne, and Sonny Osborne joining them on this glittering collection. S.B.
Subtitled “The Greatest Show Ever Been Gave,” Robert Earl Keen’s Ryman album underscores the Texas singer’s quirky humor. That comes across in the renditions of the songs too, with the crowd hollering along to REK favorites like “Corpus Christi Bay” and “The Road Goes on Forever.” Keen returns to the Ryman again this year for his annual Christmas show, a tradition that is becoming as storied as the auditorium itself. J.H.