WHITTLE: Before Ryman Auditorium was Opry’s home

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Writer’s note: Excerpts from song stylist Marty Stuart’s pen appear in this poetic tribute to the Ryman Auditorium. Marty’s memorable recitation came at the historic Martha White Bluegrass Night on June 21, 1994.

Many fans of country music believe the Grand Ole Opry started at the Ryman Auditorium.

They’re right to respect the national landmark, but they’re wrong in thinking the Ryman was the birthplace of the Opry.

Prior to the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry, named by George D. Hay in 1927, was held in various Nashville locations, including War Memorial Auditorium, an insurance office, WSM Studio, the Dixie Tabernacle and a theater. Preceding the Opry was the Nashville Barn Dance that aired over a radio station in the early 1920s in back of a feed store near the Cumberland River.

Few realize today that Hay was “only 30” when he billed himself over WSM Radio as “The Solemn Old Judge.”

Fewer still know that Hay was no judge but a former newspaper reporter from Memphis.

WSM’s call letters stood for the National Life Insurance Company’s motto: “We Shield Millions.”

It wasn’t until 1937 that the Ryman Auditorium became the Opry’s home for the next four decades when hundreds of country music careers and legends were born.

The last official broadcast of the Opry at home in the Ryman came in 1974 with completion of the Grand Ole Opry House near the world famous Opryland Hotel.

When Nashville and Opryland were swamped with flood waters in May 2010, once again, the Ryman served as a refuge for the Opry.

“On a foundation as pure as God’s own breath, I have stood the test of time…” poetic words of song-stylist Marty Stuart who first performed on the Grand Ole Opry’s stage when he was 12 years old with Lester Flatt.

There are a few single names, such as Uncle Dave, Scruggs, Flatt, Cash, Monroe, Tubb, Hank and RYMAN that are recognized globally as Nashville.

“Sing me a song as sad as Hank, have Bill Monroe yodel twice… Deford come and blow your harp and make that baby cry, because Uncle Dave’s coming in on the Woodbury bus as our redemption draweth nigh.”

Birthed initially in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle by new-Christian convert Thomas Green Ryman, a wealthy Cumberland River boat captain, the Ryman’s present-day billing on the landmark’s internet website is: “Cool Since 1892.”

It was evangelist Samuel P. Jones, who eulogized the life of Capt. Ryman in 1904, and polled the funeral audience if was OK to officially rename the building, the Ryman Auditorium, to which those there stood in a standing ovation.

Irony has it, Ryman was an angry riverboat pilot who initially attended a sermon by Rev. Sam Jones with plans to disrupt and humiliate the preacher man.

Instead, Ryman received salvation under Jones spirited preaching, and that triggered the boatman to construct the cathedral near Nashville’s water front.

Thus, the name Ryman Auditorium was etched in permanent country and gospel music historic annals.

“…Nearer My God To Thee, have Roy Acuff sing, while Maybelle plays her autoharp, my children know how to make the rafters ring…”

The formative years of the Opry were at the Ryman, on the stage’s well-worn planks where Earl Scruggs stood when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945, as the prototype sound of today’s bluegrass.

In 1949, 25-year-old tall and lanky Hank Williams vocalized himself into country music immortality when he stepped on the Opry stage singing “Lovesick Blues.”

No one, before or since, has impacted Nashville’s country music scene like Hank.

Elvis Presley played on the Opry at the Ryman one night in 1954, and Johnny Cash was added to the cast in 1956.

It was backstage at the Ryman where Johnny met June Carter, when he prophesied that he would marry her one day. They wed 12 years later.

“Now, new melodies drift up out of my windows, that bloom like magnolias in the night, sent by young and fearless hearts…”

And the Ryman plays on…

“So, hit those low notes Randy Travis, Make Way for Alison Krauss, Tell Travis and Marty to turn it down easy, be reverent when they rock this house, because Gill, Garth and Jackson are bringing it home as we kiss this century good-bye, we’re the reason God made Saturday nights.” MP

Dan Whittle can be contacted at danwhittle@comcast.net.
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