The Mother Church is More Than a Country Club

Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium rocks—and rolls out the red carpet for all kinds of music

It’s been around since the World War II era, when it was renamed after the death of the steamboat captain, Tom Ryman, who had it built. But before that, it was a church, the Union Gospel Tabernacle. And for decades, appropriately enough, the Ryman Auditorium has been known as country music’s Mother Church, a nod to its house-of-worship roots as well as its unparalleled prominence as a world-class performance spot. The Grand Ole Opry made the venerated venue its home for 31 years, beginning in 1943.

But this iconic temple for Music City royalty has always been a place for more than country music, says general manager Gary Levy, who’s been in his Ryman role for nearly five years. “We just celebrated our 130th birthday, and part of that was to expand on the idea that we’re much beyond the legacy of country music and the Grand Ole Opry.”

Levy points out that from its earliest days, all kinds of showbiz superstars played at the Ryman—including magician Harry Houdini, Italian opera legend Enrico Caruso, composer and conductor John Philip “Stars and Stripes Forever” Sousa, singing cowboy Roy Rogers, comedian W.C. Fields, silver screen goddess Mae West, jazz crooner Nat King Cole, silent film superstar Charlie Chaplin, and Bob Hope.

And the Ryman wasn’t just known for music. It also hosted political rallies, community events, theatrical productions and ballet. It developed a rarified rep one of America’s most venerated performance spots, for acts of any kind. 

“The Carnegie Hall of the South,” says Levy. “Our philosophy here is all are welcome, and we believe that.”

Just this week, the Ryman received its 14th Pollstar Award, an honor voted by the trade industry publication, as the Theater of the Year.

The Grand Ole Opry still comes home “to roost,” for a series of shows during the winter, and other country stars showcase there at other times throughout the year. Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Ricky Skaggs are no strangers to the Ryman stage.

And other times, the Ryman presents a wholly eclectic and ecumenical lineup, opening its iconic doors in downtown Nashville to U2 front man Bono, flute-playing rapper/singer Lizzo, the Wu-Tang Clan (which made history in 2019 as the first hip-hop act to play the Mother Church), pop star/actor Harry Styles, and former First Lady Michelle Obama (on her book tour).

On March 1, the Ryman will host “Rock the Ryman,” an annual event featuring Nashville artists like Little Big Town, The War & Treaty, Caitlin Smith and Charlie Worsham, all performing music from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees—and continuing to connect the dots between the venue and the long line of non-country artists who’ve taken to the Ryman stage over the decades.

“People feel like they’ve ‘made it’ when they play the Ryman,” he adds, “no matter how big they [already] are.”

Left: The suit worn by James Brown during his appearance at the Ryman is on display as part of the venue’s exhibits of memorabilia from artists who’ve played there.

Is the Ryman haunted???

Is there a ghost in the house at one Nashville’s most revered musical places?

“Many artists and a lot of staff members truly do believe the building is haunted,” says Gary Levy, the GM of the Ryman. “My guess is that, if any concert venue is going to be haunted, it would be this one.”

And why is that?

Maybe it’s haunted by the ghost of Elvis, whose first and only appearance at the Grand Ole Opry was a bit of a disaster; audiences just didn’t know what to make of him and his hip-shaking, but he knew what to make of them—he vowed to never return. And he didn’t…or maybe he did, and he does. Could that be Presley’s otherworldly specter, lurking in the shadows of the balcony, or around the labyrinth of corners and corridors backstage?

Or maybe it’s the ghost of riverboat captain Thomas Ryman, who founded the building—which eventually became the Opry—as a gospel tabernacle? After he died, and the facility was renamed in his honor, the Ryman began getting away from its “spiritual” roots, hosting a variety of entertainers and events. Perhaps Ryman wasn’t too pleased with all the secular sounds and “risqué” performances. It’s about that time that reports of a strange “apparition” began circulating. 

One of the Opry’s earliest stars during its Ryman years was Hank Williams, who met an untimely death, at age 28 in 1953, after mixing drugs and alcohol. What if the Ryman’s “ghost” is the fabled “I Saw the Light” singer, who perhaps grew so fond of rapturous responses from the Opry crowd, he decided to keep coming back, seeking an encore? Ryman staffers have for years recounted episodes of hearing Hank Sr.’s unworldly voice or his songs in the building—with no explanation or source to be found.

Numerous other Opry entertainers met unfortunate early demises, from accidents, overdoses or even murder—including Patsy Cline (plane crash), Stringbean Akeman (killed during a robbery) and Dottie West (automobile accident…on the way to play Opry, after it moved to its “new” home at Opryland). Maybe they’re just hanging out at a place that they just weren’t ready to depart.

There’s also the legend of the “Grey Man,” believed to be one of the Confederate soldiers who visited the venue after the War Between the States was over; he’s sometimes been “seen” sitting in the balcony, as if waiting for another show to start. Another spooky school of thought concerns “The Lady,” a recurring female apparition specifically believed to be Patsy Cline.

Levy says he’s heard things from some clearly “spooked” Ryman employees. “Sometimes they’ll see something, or someone, when the building is otherwise completely empty,” he says. “Maybe it’s late at night, after a show, and they’ll notice the stage curtain fluctuating, or what they think is someone standing behind it. Or they think they notice in someone in a place where there should be no one.”

While Levy hasn’t seen any of that himself, he won’t go so far as dismissing it. “I have never personally experienced anything,” he says. “But I’m not [going] to discount anything either. There’s a lot of things out there we don’t know about, and I respect the opinions of everyone who believes it might be haunted. Who are we to say if it is, or it isn’t?”

—Neil Pond

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