Stories

How the Grand Ole Opry Found Itself at Ryman Auditorium

October 24, 2019

The Opry spent 31 formative years at the Ryman. While the show has since moved to the Grand Ole Opry House, it returns to its most famous former home each winter.

By Katie Quine ● October 24, 2019

The Grand Ole Opry was in search of a new home. Savvy Ryman Auditorium manager Lula Naff was in search of steady Saturday night business.

In June 1943, the Opry was at the end of its four-year tenure at the regal War Memorial Auditorium, where the show had worn out its welcome. Growing Opry crowds, voracious for live country music that they heard on the radio, earned a reputation for their rowdiness and a nickname for the show, “a good-natured riot.”

Harry Stone, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry and 650 AM WSM at the time, was running out of options. War Memorial was the Opry’s fourth home since 1925 after the show outgrew the National Life and Accident Insurance Company headquarters, Hillsboro Theater, and the Dixie Tabernacle. But he knew of one downtown venue that was plenty big enough — on the off chance he could convince its manager to let the Opry set up shop.

To Stone’s surprise, Lula Naff’s dislike of “hillbilly” music that was taking over Nashville was strong, but the shrewd businesswoman’s love for a good deal was stronger.

Known for her tenacity, Ryman Auditorium manager Lula Naff took the helm at the venue at a time few women ascended to such a position.

“She liked the idea because [the Opry] rented every Saturday night for the year,” says Joshua Bronnenberg, Museum Curator and Tours Manager at the Ryman. “52 nights for the year automatically booked — she liked that, and she rented it out to them for $100 a night.”

It seems improbable that Ryman Auditorium, which was erected as a tabernacle in 1892 and featured the likes of the Imperial Russian Ballet and the sensational opera Carmen at the turn of the 20th Century, would go on to host the boisterous Opry audience for 31 years, from 1943 to 1974.

But the Ryman quickly became more than a venue to the Opry. It became the place where the show’s popularity took off at a velocity never before seen, earning the Ryman the title of the “Mother Church of Country Music.”

It’s the birthplace of bluegrass, where Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt melded their unique sounds to create a style of music the world had never heard before. It’s the stage upon which Hank Williams earned six encores during his Opry debut. Where Johnny Cash met June Carter backstage when he performed on the Opry for the first time.

From the very first time they saw him, Opry crowds could not get enough of Hank Williams.

To this day, stepping into the hallowed Ryman can take a hold of you as you.

“It almost drove me to my knees because if you’re a Southern kid especially, if you wanted to play country music, this was the place to be,” Marty Stuart says, recalling the time he first encountered the Ryman as a 13-year-old boy fresh off the bus from Mississippi.

In those formative years for the Opry, what the Ryman lacked in air conditioning and dressing rooms, it made up for in exceptional acoustics. Deep, resonant sound carries easily in the auditorium and only seems to get better with time, like an old violin. Performers like Roy Acuff, Ray Price, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette became Opry stars in the light of the Ryman’s distinctive stained-glass windows, as fans lined up around the block to pack into the building.

But as downtown Nashville began to deteriorate in the 1970s, looking like a much different city than it is now, the Opry set its sights on a permanent location across the river, the Grand Ole Opry House. The Opry House would be equipped to support the increasing production needs of the show — and it had air conditioning. Of course, that meant saying goodbye to an old friend.

The March 11, 1974 edition of The Tennessean recounted the Opry’s final show at the Ryman with the headline “It Was Nearly Routine … ’Til Minnie Cried.”

“The Opry will go on,” Pearl said, composing herself through tears. “The Opry is the audience. You don’t have to worry. I’m not worried at all — just a little sad because I’m saying goodbye to a lot of spooks and shadows.”

Minnie was right. The Opry continued to flourish in its new home, where the show still takes place today. A six-foot circle of wood from the Ryman sits centerstage as a reminder of the show’s legacy.

In the years that followed the move, the Ryman remained a quiet yet enduring memory to those who love country music, despite sitting vacant. Then came Emmylou Harris.

She got the idea to record At the Ryman in 1992, a live album that won the singer-songwriter a Grammy in 1992. The Opry member’s album ignited interest in restoring the Ryman to its former glory. After an extensive renovation, the Ryman resumed its programing, hosting hundreds of shows featuring artists of all genres every year.

On October 18, 1998, the Opry returned to the Ryman for a benefit show to the delight of fans and artists. A few more shows followed in early 1999. By the end of that year — 25 years after the show had moved — the Opry decided to make the homecoming tradition official with “Opry at the Ryman,” a three-month winter run every November through January.

Marty Stuart performs at his 25th anniversary as an Opry member at the Ryman in 2017.

To artists and fans alike, Opry at the Ryman is truly something special.

“Anytime I get the chance to sing in the Ryman Auditorium, I take it because it is absolutely hands-down my favorite place I’ve ever gotten to play music,” Vince Gill says.

Turns out, you can go home again.

Opry at the Ryman
The Opry returns to its most famous former home for an intimate run of shows November through January. This year don’t miss performances by Kelsea Ballerini, Rascal Flatts, Ricky Skaggs, Home Free, Ashley Monroe, Cam, and more.