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RYMAN NIGHTS

“When we booked this tour, this was kind of the reason, this room,” Harry Styles told the SRO crowd at his 9/25/17 Ryman Auditorium concert. Like so many pop, rock and soul acts—and yes, even the Wu-Tang Clan, who became the storied venue’s first-ever hip-hop headliner in 2019—the Ryman is a must-play. The former church, which served as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974, has become a high temple of artistry, one that reaches beyond obvious commercial measure.

When Miley Cyrus needed a venue for her NBC Peacock Pride special, Stand by You, with LGBTQ allies Brothers Osborne, Little Big Town, Maren Morris, Mickey Guyton and Orville Peck, the Ryman was her choice. Ditto Loretta Lynn for her 85th-birthday concerts on 4/14-15/17, as well as a pair of 2015 performances from Paul Simon, Jonathan Demme’s 2006 filming of Neil Young: Heart of Gold, the documentary feature in which Young premiered the songs from his Prairie Wind LP, and Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad Tour stop in 1996.

The building was erected as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 by businessman Thomas Ryman to serve as a place for tent-show revivalist Samuel Porter Jones to preach to laborers working on boats carrying goods along the Cumberland River. To help with the construction debt, the venue also played host to operas, cattle auctions, ice-skating shows, lectures and boxing matches. By 1920, Lula C. Naff—who went by L.C. Naff to sidestep the rampant sexism of the era—was booking WC Fields, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Harry Houdini, Doris Day and Enrico Caruso, earning the Ryman its nickname, “the Carnegie Hall of the South.”

Though its first sellout was for an appearance by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, the Ryman would welcome packed houses for Aretha Franklin, Widespread Panic, Tyler Childers, Lizzo, Tedeschi-Trucks Band and the four nights of Kacey Musgraves’ supernova-launching residency. It also was the primary site of the two seasons of The Johnny Cash Show from 1969-1971, which paired Cash with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in its premiere episode on 6/7/69 and featured the only television performance by Derek & the Dominos on 1/6/71.

Experts consider the hall’s acoustics, built for worship, among the finest in the world. But the hard wooden church pews are not built for comfort. The one dressing room was for men only, while female performers crammed into the ladies’ bathroom to check their makeup; many artists ducked through Tootsies Orchid Lounge’s backdoor across the ally for liquid respite.

When the Grand Ole Opry moved to its current Opry House building in 1974, the Ryman mostly sat dormant. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the wooden structure survived periodic calls for demolition as Lower Broadway grew seedier and more dissolute.

When Emmylou Harris played three nights there in 1991, each evening’s 200 attendees were not allowed to be seated under the balcony due to structural decay. Harris and The Nash Ramblers would win a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group, but more importantly, those shows and the press At the Ryman subsequently reinvigorated the city’s and Gaylord Entertainment’s commitment to view the Ryman as a historic concert venue.

In the fall of ’93, major renovations began. With a new entrance, more dressing rooms and a grand staircase leading up to the balcony, the Ryman—known for sweltering heat in the summer—was finally air-conditioned. Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion was the restored venue’s first show; Keillor’s long-running radio show had been inspired by his covering of the Ryman’s final Opry show for The New Yorker. Additional renovations have helped maintain the Ryman’s position as one of America’s premiere concert venues.

Coldplay, Ringo Starr, Foo Fighters, Maggie Rogers, Bob Weir, Elvis Costello, Drive-By Truckers, Lana Del Rey, Morrissey, Nick Jonas, Dave Chappelle, Earth, Wind & Fire, Brandi Carlile, Jackson Browne and Nick Jonas have all enjoyed the ambiance of what Architectural Digest cited as Tennessee’s most iconic building in 2018. Beyond the live recording from Jason Isbell (whose annual residencies since 2014 are must-sees), John Prine, Levon Helm, Erasure and Old Crow Medicine Show, there’s a visceral connection to history when one walks into the building.

For Nashville-raised Kesha, that meant bringing her mother Pebe Sebert—best-known for co-writing Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”—onstage in 2017. Their mother-daughter moment brought to mind the multi-generational Ryman appearances by Johnny Cash and The Carter Family as well as The Earl Scruggs Review. And after Marcus Mumford’s opening-night jitters during Mumford & Sons’ three-night 2012 residency required his leaving the stage to throw up, the band rallied to mark the occasion by performing “Wagon Wheel” without microphones from the front of the stage.

Other than Harlem’s Apollo Theater, few historic venues can compare to the 2,362-capacity room, which has won Pollstar’s Theater of the Year Award a dozen times, the last 10 wins consecutive.

Beyond the kudos, the Ryman may be the world’s most supportive proving ground. Audiences come to listen and to revere the performers onstage. For Styles, it marked the moment when the young artist with the Mick Jagger brio and full-tilt fashion flamboyance became recognized as an artist capable of penetrating nuance and real musical swagger. People still talk about his cover of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” to the point that it’s mentioned on the venue’s own website. Now, that’s impact. But it’s also an almost nightly occurrence at the Ryman.

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ROCK'S NEW CHAPTER
Power pop, global glam and the return of the loud.
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