NASHVILLE — When Emmylou Harris picked Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium as the site to record a live album in 1991, it was strictly a pragmatic choice. She needed a facility in Nashville and, as she recalled last week, “There weren’t that many venues in town as there are now.”
That decision proved to be a pivotal moment in the history of the venerable building, one that opened a century earlier as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. For more than three decades, it served as the home of weekly Grand Ole Opry live performances and radio broadcasts.
In 1974, it was essentially abandoned.
That’s the year the Opry moved its base of operations outside the city to the sparkling new Opryland Theme Park created by Gaylord Entertainment to further capitalize on country music’s burgeoning power as a tourist attraction. Grand Ole Opry regular Minnie Pearl famously broke down in tears during the show’s final performance at the Ryman on March 9, 1974.
Newspaper headlines soon reflected growing speculation over whether the Ryman, which had fallen into disrepair even before the departure of the Opry, was headed for a meeting with the wrecking ball.
Then Harris put on her string of three shows with her new, all-acoustic Nash Ramblers Band, yielding the album “At the Ryman,” which collected a Grammy Award for country duo or group performance and, more important, ignited efforts to restore the Ryman to its former glory.
“Perhaps more than any other event, this concert, which included a guest appearance by bluegrass founding father Bill Monroe, foreshadowed the Ryman’s return as a great showplace,” according to William U. Eiland’s book, “Nashville’s Mother Church: The History of Ryman Auditorium.”
That’s why Ryman officials have tapped Harris to play a key role in a yearlong slate of special events marking this year’s 125th anniversary of the building commonly referred to as “The Mother Church of Country Music,” a title closely tied to its status as home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.
“Even before it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry,” Harris said, “it was considered the Carnegie Hall of the South. Teddy Roosevelt spoke there. Anna Pavlova danced there. It has a great place not just in music history but in American history.”
It was at the Ryman, for instance, where Kentucky mandolinist Monroe first brought guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs into his group and crystallized a new strain of country music built on tightly knit vocal harmonies and exceptional instrumental dexterity that soon came to be known as bluegrass music.
Harris has been booked for the Ryman anniversary kickoff show on May 2. “We’re putting together as many living members of the Nash Ramblers as we can,” she said. “Unfortunately we lost (bassist) Roy Huskey Jr. quite a few years ago.” (Huskey died in 1997.)
As for what they’ll play at a show that also comes roughly on the 25th anniversary of the “At the Ryman” album itself, Harris said, “I think we would certain-ly want to revisit that album.”
The Ryman took on the name of one of early Nashville’s key benefactors, shipping magnate Capt. Thomas Green Ryman. At the rough-and-tumble period in the late 1800s, he empathized with the mission of evangelist Samuel Porter Jones, who preached temperance during an era of wild and woolly revelry in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Thomas Ryman converted to Christianity in 1885 while taking in one of Jones’ tent revivals, according to Eiland, and provided the funding to build a permanent tabernacle for Jones’ ongoing proselytizing. It held 4,000 people and cost $100,000 — not including a planned gallery for additional seating capacity that was postponed when funds ran out.
The first services were held in 1890 before construction was complete and the Union Gospel Tabernacle opened officially upon its completion in 1892.
Initially it hosted Jones’ own services and sermons by touring evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody, while non-religious events also dotted the Ryman’s schedule, including a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, theater, dance and musical performances by Tallulah Bankhead, Fanny Brice, Enrico Caruso, John McCormack and Martha Graham.
Shortly after Thomas Ryman died in 1904, Jones suggested renaming the Tabernacle in his honor, hence the Ryman Auditorium was born.
In 1925, the Grand Ole Opry started broadcasts from radio station WSM’s small studio downtown, which could accommodate a relatively small live audience. That audience continued to grow, prompting a series of moves to different facilities until the show landed at the Ryman in the midst of World War II.
Harris credited an associate, Bonnie Garner, for suggesting and then getting permission to use the Ryman, which at that point was booked only sporadically for TV and movie shoots as well as the occasional music special. “At that point,” Harris recalled, “it had become a place for people to come see where music had been made.”
After Harris’ shows, Gaylord Entertainment decided to restore the Ryman. Over the last two decades, the 2,362-seat theater has been increasingly booked for concerts not only by contemporary and veteran country music acts but a broad range of rock, pop, indie, folk, soul and R&B performers as well.
Harris credited Gaylord for saving the Ryman from the bulldozer and for its decision to bring Grand Ole Opry performances back to its former home each winter since 1999.
“I wish I could take credit for having that kind of foresight,” Harris said with a laugh, “But at that point, I was just a working musician who was looking for a place to make a live record with my band.”
In recent years, the Ryman has become a popular tourist destination. Visitors frequently snap selfies while posing on the steps leading to the stage that’s been home to the likes of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn on up through Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan and other members of country music’s modern class.
Other anniversary events include a multiple-weekend residency through the year by Little Big Town and a summer Bluegrass Nights series noting the venue’s status as the birthplace of bluegrass with separate concerts by Vince Gill, the Earles of Leicester, Soggy Bottom Boys, Ricky Skaggs and Sara Watkins, among others.
It’s not sheer nostalgia that keeps audiences and musicians coming back to the Ryman.
“Music is a continuing thing, and it must be constantly reinventing itself,” Harris said. “But at the same time, we must never forget the past. No music is made in a vacuum.
“As musicians, we imitate until we find our own voice. Playing at the Ryman, especially on the stage of the Opry, is just an honor to join a tradition that’s been going on so long.”