I recently returned from visiting Nashville, Tennessee, and while there visited the Ryman Auditorium. Being a fan of country music, I knew the Ryman was called “the Mother Church of Country Music,” and was the home for many years of the radio program The Grand Ole Opry, but I was very surprised to learn about the building itself and the rich variety of programs performed there.
Built in 1892 by Thomas Ryman, a prosperous Nashville riverboat captain, merchant, and convert of evangelist Samuel Jones, the Union Gospel Tabernacle served all Nashville denominations and for many years was the largest auditorium in the South. When Captain Ryman died in 1904, the building was renamed in his honor. Before The Grand Old Opry made its home at the Ryman in 1943, Nashville citizens attended concerts, stage shows, lectures, and graduation ceremonies. For many years it was the home of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Fewer and fewer religious events were held.
Many performers, recording artists, politicians, and entertainers appeared at the Ryman. Residents could see and hear President Theodore Roosevelt, President William Taft, John Phillip Sousa, Sarah Bernhardt, The Fisk University Jubilee Singers, Enrico Caruso, Maude Adams, and Marian Anderson. The New York Metropolitan Opera Company performed Carmen and the Barber of Seville in 1901 during the company’s national tour. This list is just a small sample of the wide variety of programs offered to Nashville residents.
This is a recording by Marcella Sembrich, the great international opera star who performed with the New York Metropolitan Opera for over 11 seasons. She toured with the Opera and appeared as Rosina in the Barber of Seville at the Ryman Auditorium.
In 1943, the radio program The Grand Old Opry moved into the Ryman. It had started in 1925 as a local program on the Nashville radio station WSM. According to our NBC Radio History Collection Index Cards, “George D. Hay played ‘The Solemn Ole Judge’ and Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a 77-year old fiddler, presented the program as a folk music filler, following an NBC broadcast of grand opera from New York. From that time on, Grand Ole Opry remained on the air, locally over WSM, and becoming Network on October 14, 1939.”
The show became so popular with fans that they started turning up at the radio station to watch. Bouncing around different Nashville venues over the years, the Opry found the Ryman to be a perfect fit.
By 1974, the owners of the building, National Life Insurance, wanted to move the show to a new venue, because the Ryman had no air conditioning, no dressing rooms for female performers, and had become unsuitable for the show. Many considered it to be a fire hazard. The last broadcast of the Opry at the Ryman was on March 15, 1974. The next night the show broadcast from its new home, the Grand Ole Opry House, nine miles from downtown Nashville. For over 20 years the Ryman stood neglected and unused, even facing demolition from city officials who wanted to improve the downtown area which was filled with pawn shops and adult bookstores. It wasn’t until 1994 that the building was renovated and became a museum and concert space.
The Library’s collection of The Grand Ole Opry recordings can be found in both online catalogs, SONIC, the Recorded Sound Section’s online catalog and the Library’s main catalog. You’ll find over fifty broadcasts of the NBC program in SONIC from the years 1944 to 1955, but not every year is complete and NBC only broadcast thirty minutes of the show. The Library has hundreds of Grand Ole Opry programs from the AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio & Television Service) Collection from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, as well as compilation LPs and CDs from different shows and years.
Visiting Nashville and the Ryman Auditorium gave me a greater appreciation of its impact both culturally and spiritually on the city. And why it still is a beloved stop on any musical road trip.