Emmylou Harris Has a Special Connection to Nashville's Historic Ryman Auditorium

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Emmylou Harris: "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."

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.”

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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