Vince Gill will never forget the first time he took the stage of Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium in the Eighties, when he sang and played his beloved 1942 Martin D-28 guitar alongside Chet Atkins. “I talk about the spirit of this place and I felt it flowing through my body,” Gill tells Rolling Stone Country. “My body flushed with so much heat and it was palpable and a little eerie, but I wasn’t scared. I have only felt that two other times in my life. One was at a funeral for a friend and the other was at JFK’s grave.”
Larry Gatlin, who has played the coveted stage as both a solo act and with the legendary Gatlin Brothers, is equally haunted by the venue’s unparalleled significance. “When I sing out into that audience, I think the ghosts of Hank Williams and Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells are all singing back to me,” he admits.
The Ryman’s spirit has remained a constant presence throughout its various incarnations, the latest of which begins today when $14 million in much-needed renovations are unveiled. While the venue’s sound is among the nation’s best, its small lobby was often too cramped and its lines were too long — a downside of the venue’s tremendous success. A new café has been added, as well as improved food and beverage service, a new box office and larger lobbies. New exhibits and an upstairs theater featuring the film, The Soul of Nashville are further additions. But the historic auditorium, which was restored in 1994, remains unchanged.
“The Ryman is living history,” says Shovels & Rope‘s Cary Ann Hearst. “It’s unique to be able to stand and sing where your heroes sang. Until the early Nineties, it was practically untouched. As a kid, I remember taking field trips there. We were taught in school to cherish our musical history and the Ryman was central to that legacy.
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“It’s scary to watch so many physical changes happening to the building, though I realize it’s perhaps financially savvy,” she continues. “Nashvillians and music lovers in general are very sentimental about the Mother Church and hope it’s forever preserved in a recognizable way.”
Few revere the Ryman’s history more than Gill, and he welcomes the changes with open arms. “They haven’t done anything to the original structure, but they have made the experience even better. They righted all the wrongs that happened when they did the first redo. To spend that kind of money to make it right, everybody is grateful.”
The downtown building was named after Capt. Thomas Ryman, who made his money in riverboat shipping during the rowdy post-Civil War period, when the city had more than 75 saloons. A fiery traveling preacher named Samuel Porter Jones came to town and began drawing 2,000 a night to his tent revivals, which wasn’t good for the good-timin’ businesses. Ryman decided to pay Jones a visit. Instead of a confrontation, he had a conversion after hearing Jones out and vowed to build a tabernacle where all would be welcome. In 1890, the Union Gospel Tabernacle — the city’s largest gathering place — was established. (It was renamed the Ryman Auditorium after his death.)
The building became known as the Mother Church of Country Music because it served as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974, three decades that marked some of the most important years and artists in the genre’s history. Bluegrass was born on the Ryman stage in 1945, when Earl Scruggs played his banjo with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys for the first time. In 1969, Johnny Cash hosted his ABC television series from the Ryman stage, where he welcomed performers such as Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Roy Orbison. When Cash died in 2003, a public memorial for the entertainer was held at the venue.
“I am not overstating it: It is the Bethlehem of country music, for heaven’s sake,” Gatlin says. “It is the birthplace, the manger of country music.”
Unfortunately, after the Opry’s departure, the building sat empty and fell into disrepair. Some believed it wasn’t worth saving. But in 1991, Emmylou Harris recorded a live album, At the Ryman, and those concerts served as the spark for the venue’s revival. In 1994, the Ryman reopened after $.8.5 million in renovations.
Of course, the Ryman has never been just for country music — then or now. Al Jolson, Charlie Chapin, Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Katharine Hepburn and Louis Armstrong worked the stage. More recently, the Ryman has hosted artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen, Al Green, Neil Young and James Brown to the Black Crowes, Jack White, Mumford & Sons, Sam Smith, Foo Fighters and Coldplay. The Ryman continues to book both the hottest new acts and the legends — Jeff Beck performed there last month.
It’s not the building’s history, but a sound that is second only to the Mormon Tabernacle that keeps artists coming back. “With that old wood, it just bounces around in there and comes back to you,” Gatlin says. “It is lush and vibrant.”
“I have been at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York, and I prefer the sound of this place,” Gill says. “Maybe it is all the wood; maybe it is all the pews. Who knows what it is? Maybe it is because it was a church first.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Where do you go to church?’ I said, ‘The Ryman,'” Gill continues with a laugh. “I love how historically it has been inclusive of all things — black, white, music, whatever it is. Louis Armstrong played here, B.B. King played here, (Italian tenor Enrico) Caruso and the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang here. It is everything and everybody. . . To me, the point of life is that everybody is welcome.”
Gill says music fans of every stripe should make the pilgrimage to the Ryman at least once, and offers his favorite spot in the historic building.
“It doesn’t just belong to country music. Any fan of music should come find somebody they are crazy about and have the experience of listening to music, sitting in the front row of the balcony — that is where it sounds the best.”