Nashville Revives Country-Music Shrine

The Ryman Auditorium, which was built by a riverboat captain who `got religion,' embarks on a new life after extensive restoration

CANADIAN musician Wendell Donovan has just finished strumming the guitar and singing to a nearly empty auditorium. The few people in the house mostly ignored him. But Mr. Donovan is ecstatic; this is one of the most meaningful performances of his career.

``I got goose bumps,'' he says. ``It was extremely humbling.''

After arriving in Nashville this morning with hopes of snaring a country-music record contract, Donovan and his manager Roy Powell discovered that their hotel room was not quite ready. So they headed straight for a tour of Ryman Auditorium, the ``Mother Church of Country Music.''

Standing amid the oak pews and staring at the simple but legendary stage, Donovan had a flash of inspiration. Since his guitar was in the car, he asked permission to bring it in and play a few of his songs on the same stage where such country-music greats as Hank Williams and Patsy Cline performed.

``The acoustics are the best of anyplace I've ever played,'' Donovan says. ``It's such a magical building with all the musical memories built up over decades.''

``It's every artist's dream to be able to deliver their music in the Ryman,'' Mr. Powell adds.

From 1943 to 1974, the ``Grand Ole Opry'' radio show was broadcast from the Ryman. For the past 20 years, the stage has been dark and silent - except for the few visiting musicians such as Donovan. The building was turned into a museum and musical shrine. But this summer a major interior restoration was completed, and the Ryman is once again hosting regular performances.

Although the Grand Ole Opry days gained the Ryman international acclaim, the building has a rich history stretching back more than a century.

It began in May 1885 when Capt. Thomas Ryman, the owner of a riverboat company and saloon in Nashville, attended a tent revival. He planned to disrupt the religious event with heckling and jeering, but the sermon by evangelist Samuel Porter Jones ended up changing Captain Ryman's life.

As the story goes, Ryman declared that ``anybody who can convert an old scoundrel like me surely deserves a better place to preach from than a tent.'' That night, he promised to build a ``tabernacle for all denominations that would be amply large to accommodate the largest crowd.'' The majestic red-brick building in the heart of downtown Nashville was completed in 1892 and called the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Its name was later changed to the Ryman Auditorium.

``Tom Ryman dedicated his life from 1885 until he died in 1904 to raising funds to build the building and then pay off the debt,'' says Steve Buchanan, general manager of the Ryman.

In addition to religious services, the auditorium's strong acoustics made it a popular place for political rallies and entertainment. ``When the preacher stood down there behind the pulpit with no microphone and was preaching to a congregation of 3,000 or 4,000 people, he wanted to be able to make the sinners quake,'' Mr. Buchanan says, explaining the building's exceptional acoustics.

A Confederate veterans group added a balcony in 1897, and in 1901 the stage was built on top of the pulpit for a performance of ``Carmen'' by the Metropolitan Opera. The Ryman became a popular performance and lecture hall for such celebrities as Booker T. Washington, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Isadora Duncan, Will Rogers, and Mae West. Elvis Presley performed here once. In the early 1900s, the Ryman was known as ``the Carnegie Hall of the South.''

Once the Grand Ole Opry moved here in 1943, the lines of would-be audience members snaked around the building every Saturday before the show went on the air.

Little Jimmy Dickens, who joined the Opry in 1948, remembers coming to the Ryman in costume because there were no dressing rooms for performers. Despite the inconveniences, Mr. Dickens has fond memories of the Ryman. ``It was a meeting place for everyone to come together and tell stories from the road,'' he says. ``We didn't have the luxury of dressing rooms and air conditioning, so it was a real family back then.''

But when the Opry outgrew the Ryman and moved about 10 miles out of town to the Opryland theme park in 1974, the building fell into disrepair. It was left open as a museum, and about 200,000 people per year came to visit the historic building.

At one point, there were plans to raze the Ryman and use the bricks to build a chapel out at Opryland. But a public outcry quickly stopped that plan.

``Nobody really understood the community's love and respect for this building until then,'' Mr. Buchanan says.

As part of a citywide effort to improve downtown Nashville, the building's current owner, Gaylord Entertainment, announced an $8.5-million renovation several years ago. The 250 oak pews were restored to their original luster and 50 gallons of chewing gum was scraped from underneath them. Cracked masonry was repaired and windows replaced. Air conditioning was installed for the first time.

To accommodate the necessities of modern-day performance halls without altering the old Ryman, a nearly 18,000-square-foot addition was built behind the existing building. It provides handicapped access, public restrooms, concessions, a box office, management offices, and a gift shop.

By day, the building still operates as a museum with displays telling the Ryman's rich history. At night, it is once again hosting regular performances.

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