Lower Broadway district is full of bars,
bachelorette parties, bachelor parties and party
Tenn. — This was the heart of Saturday night, and
honky-tonk singer-songwriter Whitey Morgan had Ryman
Auditorium in an uproar.
determined scowl and a long beard, Morgan prowled the
stage as if looking for a fight. Now and again he’d let
his band, the 78’s, carry the tune while he paused to
pull on a bottle of whiskey.
settin’ here in the Mother Church,” Morgan said,
gazing at the colorful Gothic windows at the back. “Come
closer and sing with me.”
front, hardcore fans raised their beers in salute. Up in
the balcony, they were pounding on the oak pews and
flinging fists at the ceiling.
outside, Lower Broadway, a.k.a. the Honky Tonk Highway,
was teeming with cover bands, club-hoppers and roving
bachelorette parties. Two blocks south, Journey and Def
Leppard had taken over the 20,000-seat Bridgestone Arena.
stadium across the Cumberland River, Taylor Swift was
playing to a crowd of more than 50,000. And 11 miles
northeast, Garth Brooks was headlining at the 4,400-seat
Grand Ole Opry.
has music the way Willie Nelson has wrinkles. This city of
667,560 has grown so dramatically as a music industry hub,
convention venue and tourist destination that if you went
by the numbers, the Ryman’s 2,362 seats would make it a
building went up in 1892. And although it has hosted
orchestras, opera singers and distinguished speakers, the
Ryman’s distinct character comes from being steeped in
six generations of songs about whiskey, love, cars, joy,
sorrow, farms, horses, mules, faithful dogs, faithless
mates, mountains, hollows, wild flowers and lonesome train
It was home
to the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show for more than 30
years. Now it hosts every stripe of country artist and a
smattering of performers of just about every genre but
stage, Bill Monroe and his band more or less created
bluegrass music in 1945. One night in ‘49, Hank Williams
won over the crowd so thoroughly that he was called back
for six yodeling encores of “Lovesick Blues.” Johnny
Cash first played here in 1956, was banned for bad
behavior in 1965, returned to host a TV variety show in
1969-1971 and was mourned at a memorial in 2003.
Now it was
Morgan’s turn at the Mother Church of Country Music. He
brandished his guitar like a sidearm as he sang of lost
souls, dead-end alleys, cocaine and old men who never gave
This was a
honky-tonk crowd, more Harley-Davidson than Stetson, more
T-shirt than western wear. When Morgan called them brother
truckers — I’m pretty sure that was the phrase —
It was a
fine moment, and if the people who built this hall
weren’t already dead, it might have killed them.
A few days
later in the lobby, tour guide Jonathan Brodeur took us
back to the 1880s, when Nashville was about a tenth its
Ryman was one of the city’s richest men, having built an
empire of riverboats with plenty of boozing and gambling.
day in May 1885, he stepped into a big tent where a
traveling preacher, the Rev. Sam Jones, had gathered
thousands of Nashvillians. Jones launched a tirade against
sin, and by the time he was done, the riverboat magnate
was ready to repent.
long, Jones persuaded Ryman to pay for much of a new
building to be shared by local and traveling preachers —
a tabernacle to celebrate Nashville’s newfound faith and
Revival landmark was to be built of brown brick with white
trim around its tall, narrow windows. It would have a
pulpit surrounded by curving wooden pews, seating
thousands of worshipers. And it would stand just a block
from the vice and revelry of Lower Broadway.
passed. Money ran low. By the time the tabernacle was
completed in 1892, management needed to stage not only
religious events but also secular programs, including
lectures and music, to pay construction debts.
long, those secular shows began to reshape the space.
the room had a new balcony, elegantly held aloft by
several dozen slender steel columns, principally paid for
by a Confederate veterans group. By 1901, the
tabernacle’s pulpit had been supplanted by a stage, the
better to present opera singers.
Ryman and Jones were both dead, and the tabernacle had
been renamed Ryman Auditorium. Scheduling was handled by a
former bookkeeper named Lula C. Naff, who booked whatever
acts might sell, including orchestras, the Imperial
Russian Ballet, Booker T. Washington, Mae West, Helen
Keller and W.C. Fields.
throughout Appalachia, thousands of amateur fiddlers,
guitarists, banjo and mandolin players had been mixing
European and African instruments, taking church tunes into
the world and creating a new sort of music, rural, vital
and uniquely American.
1943, the music met the room. The “Grand Ole Opry”
radio show, created in 1925 as a Saturday night
celebration of country music and rural life, moved to the
Ryman. Despite worries about rowdy crowds, Naff and
“Opry” management agreed that the live broadcasts
would fill the auditorium just about every Saturday night.
mid-1940s, comedian Minnie Pearl was a regular, hollering
“Howdy!” and bringing homespun news from the
half-fictional hamlet of Grinder’s Switch.
Elvis Presley sang Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of
Kentucky,” got a tepid response and never returned.
three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered
desegregation of the nation’s schools, Louis Armstrong
played to a Ryman audience that was all white in the
balcony, all black in the orchestra level.
somebody decided that those tall, narrow windows could use
some color and added red, yellow, green and blue tints,
creating a stained-glass effect that made the space feel
twice as ecclesiastical.
those who loved the Ryman had to admit that it was
ungainly. No private dressing rooms. No air conditioning
or elevators. And the surrounding neighborhood was getting
Ribowsky, author of “Hank: The Short Life and Long
Country Road of Hank Williams,” writes that “the hall
was cramped and dirty, smelling of urine leaking from
stuffed-up bathrooms and sweat.”
It got so
bad, Ribowksy wrote, that Roy Acuff, a major Nashville
power broker and member of the “Opry” since 1938, in
1971 called it a miserable place to perform and said, “I
never want another note of music played in that
enough, in 1974 the “Opry” fled to a bigger,
custom-built hall, 11 miles northeast of downtown — but
first, workers cut out a circle from the Ryman stage to
install at the new venue to signal continuity.
Auditorium, apparently doomed, then languished for nearly
By the time
Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers recorded a live album
there in 1991, the structure was so iffy that no one was
allowed to sit on or beneath the balcony.
only about 200 usable seats, but Harris did three shows,
savoring the chance to “feel the hillbilly dust” and
dance on stage with 79-year-old Monroe. The resulting
record and documentary, “At the Ryman” (1992), rallied
public support for the rescue and restoration of the old
In 1992 the
building’s owner, now known as Ryman Hospitality
Partners, announced plans for major renovations. In 1994
the auditorium reopened and a new era dawned.
Ryman hosts about 200 shows a year, including visits from
the “Grand Ole Opry” every winter and occasional
church services and funerals. About 250,000 people a year
book tours. The escorted version runs about 40 minutes,
takes you through dressing rooms and onto the stage, and
costs about $35.
stage, the story continues to unfold. In April 2017
Loretta Lynn marked her 85th birthday by performing a pair
of sold-out Ryman shows.
later, 23-year-old pop singer Harry Styles, formerly of
One Direction, made his Ryman debut, telling the audience:
“When we booked this tour, this was kind of the reason.
as Whitey Morgan rollicked toward the end of his gig, he
was just as reverent about the room but gruffer. He even
bowed to history by covering favorites from Roger Miller
and John Prine.
went back to his own lyrics, celebrating sinning, whiskey
and just about everything that the Ryman’s builders
wanted to wipe from this world. Behind him, the 78’s
rocked ruggedly enough to offend any “Opry” purist.
words, the Ryman has been soiled. And saved. And my first
night there was — cover your ears, Rev. Jones — a hell
of a show.
IF YOU GO
Auditorium, 116 5th Ave. N., Nashville; (615) 889-3060,
ryman.com. Ticket prices vary. Self-guided tours cost
$21.95 for adults, $16.95 for kids 4-11. For guided tours,
which cover more ground, the cost is $31.95 for adults,
$26.95 for children ages 4-11.
4th Ave. N., Nashville; (615) 649-5000,
noelle-nashville.com. This ultra-trendy downtown hotel,
which opened in December, occupies a 1929 building. Three
bars, one restaurant. Doubles from $629 a night.
Hotel, 230 4th Ave. N., Nashville; (615) 782-7100,
bobbyhotel.com. This eclectic spot, which opened in May,
has a lobby chandelier with tailfins and hub caps and a
reconditioned 1956 Scenicruiser bus on its rooftop.
Doubles from $350 a night.
Love Gulch, 316 11th Ave. S., Nashville; biscuitlove.com.
Often long lines on weekend mornings, but they move fast.
Try the Chronic Bacon — thick, sweet and spicy. $4.
401 Broadway, Nashville; (615) 254-1892,
merchantsrestaurant.com. Stately restaurant in an 1892
building. Its downstairs bistro gets busy but delivers
solid food. There’s a fancier menu in the dining room
upstairs. Southern cuisine. Bistro sandwiches $12-$15,
dinner main dishes mostly $22-$28.
Squared Pizza, 404 12th Ave. S., Nashville; (615)
248-2662, lat.ms/emmysquared. Tasty pizza in fancy flavors
(and the pies are more rectangular than square). Pizza
$13-$19, sandwiches $12-$19.