By Steve Buchanan
Executive Producer of NASHVILLE and President, Grand Ole Opry Group
The Mother Church
When Juliette Barnes stands alone and awestruck on the stage of the empty Ryman Auditorium, anxiously anticipating her first performance there, the most obvious reason why the 120-year-old building is called The Mother Church of Country Music becomes immediately clear. Before her are rows of worn wooden pews fanning out from so close to the stage that the front row occupants can reach out and touch a performer, and up a slope of floor to the back rows under balcony. On the rear wall of both levels are the tall stained glass windows consistent with Captain Tom Ryman’s vision of building a sanctuary for the sermons of evangelist Rev. Sam Jones. The Union Gospel Tabernacle opened on Fifth Avenue just north of Broadway in 1892 and when Ryman passed away in 1904, the building was renamed the Ryman Auditorium.
Though it provided the stage for many superstars of the day—Enrico Caruso, Roy Rogers, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope and Mae West. among them—its most famous and enduring role began in 1943, when the Grand Ole Opry began a 31-year-residency within the hallowed halls. The Opry was by then 18-years-old, and the Ryman period was inarguably the formative era of what is now the world’s longest-broadcast live radio show. It was then that the Ryman was dubbed The Mother Church of Country Music. (It is also known as the Birthplace of Bluegrass, thanks to the night in December 1945 when twenty-one year old Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe on stage for the first time.)
Though it was a beautiful building, the cramped confines of the Ryman backstage was not designed to accommodate the large cast of the Opry musicians, square dancers, cloggers, comediennes and announcers, as well as stage hands, sponsors, spouses and family of Opry members. The two wings were always jammed with people, the overflow crowding down the halls. On one side of the stage were the two men’s dressing room, and a men’s restroom so small that Tex Ritter used to joke that to use it, you had to “drop your drawers first, then back in.” The women of the Opry had it even worse. Their only backstage restroom—two stalls, one sink and one mirror—did double duty as their dressing room. Opry member Jeannie Seely says it would get so crowded “we used to joke about whose turn it was to pull their dress up over their head to change.” She also remembers the un-air conditioned Ryman being so hot in the summer that her makeup would be melting down her face by the time she made her way from the dressing room to the stage. There was always a nurse on duty to tend to audience members who fainted from blazing August temperatures.
Thanks to the building’s steam radiators, heat in the winter could also be erratic. The extremes in temperature, and the cramped backstage, were all the reason some Opry members needed to sneak out the stage door between sets and across the alley to the back entrance of Mom’s—which later became Tootsie’s—for some relief and a cold beverage. A stage hand would be sent to fetch them in time for their performance.
In 1974, the Opry moved from the Ryman to the spacious (and temperature controlled) brand-new Grand Ole Opry House in the suburb of Donelson, about 15 miles from its original home. In a nod to its revered place in the history of the Opry, a six-foot circle of oak wood was cut from the Ryman stage and installed in the center of the Opry stage so that Opry members and guests could sing on the same place where their predecessors once stood. That detail makes every cast performance of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” all the more meaningful.
The Ryman sat vacant and deteriorating for many years, barely surviving several attempts to raze it, until a painstaking $8.5 million restoration in 1994. The renovation, which also added air conditioning, dressing rooms, state-of-the-art sound and light technology and a 14,000 sq ft support building for a gift shop, expanded box office and restrooms, turned the Ryman into one of the most prestigious performance halls in the world, acclaimed for its astounding acoustics. Over the years, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Annie Lennox, from Elvis Costello to Bonnie Raitt has performed intimate concerts on that famous stage.
As significantly, every winter the Opry returns to the Ryman from November through January, staging its weekly live broadcasts back home in the Mother Church. Just like Juliette, performers never fail to be awed in that revered place, whether they are there for the first, the 50th or the 500th time. Nashville cast members Charles Esten (Deacon), Sam Palladio (Gunnar) and Clare Bowen (Scarlett) know the feeling. All three had the honor of being guests of the Opry on a Saturday night show this November, singing their songs on the stage where Roy Acuff, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash once stood and did the same.