Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Historic Ryman Auditorium

By Michelle Shocklee

Statue of Thomas Ryman in front of the
Ryman Auditorium; photo Ryman 
One can't talk about Nashville without including the Ryman Auditorium in the conversation. Many people associate the red brick building on 5th Avenue with the Grand Ole Opry, but it actually had quite an interesting history and purpose prior to the Opry.

It all began in October 1841 when a boy named Thomas "Tom" Green Ryman was born south of Nashville, Tennessee. He was the oldest boy of six children.  Tom's father, John, was a riverboat captain and owned a riverboat company, a very lucrative business in those days. With Nashville built on the banks of the Cumberland River, riverboats were needed to carry passengers as well as cargo. Tom enjoyed working with his father on the water, and by the age of fifteen was managing the business. Sadly, John died sometime prior to the Civil War, leaving Tom to take care of his mother, brother, and sisters.

Riverboats on the Cumberland River, TN circa 1860

In 1864, Tom purchased his first steamer. By 1885, he had amassed a 35-ship fleet and was a prominent member of Nashville's society. Being a shrewd businessman, he also owned several saloons and other ventures that catered to the rowdy sailors and their river life. He profited greatly from the sale of alcohol, gambling, and other immoral behavior, so you can imagine his feelings when a popular revivalist arrived in town, preaching against such vices. 

Rev. Sam P. Jones

Reverend Samuel Porter Jones left behind his career as a lawyer and businessman to become a Methodist preacher, following in his grandfather's and great grandfather's footsteps. Yet prior to this he was a notorious alcoholic, living a life he despised. After his father died, Sam clung to his faith in God. He quit drinking, and twenty years later he was known throughout the south as one of the greatest evangelists of the time.

In 1885, Sam headlined an outdoor tent revival in Nashville. Tom Ryman had no intention of turning his life over to the Lord when he attended Sam's revival. His plan was to heckle and badger the preacher until he left town. But by the end of the revival, Tom had become a Christian.  

Tom was so changed by his conversion, he pledged then and there to use his wealth and influence to construct a building large enough to hold every person who wanted to hear Sam Jones and others preach. 

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People lined up to get into the Ryman Auditorium 

Seven years and approximately $100,000 later (equivalent to $2.7 million now) in 1892, Reverend Jones stood behind the pulpit of Ryman’s brand-new Union Gospel Tabernacle to preach. He declared, “I believe for every dollar spent in this Tabernacle, there’ll be $10 less spent in the future on court trials. This tabernacle is the best investment the city of Nashville ever made.”

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Crowds waiting for the Opry
Throughout the early 1900s, the Union Gospel Tabernacle's central role was as a house of worship. However, it was often leased by other organizations for entertainment purposes. In 1904, Lula C. Naff, a widow and mother who was working as a stenographer, began to book and promote speaking engagements, concerts, boxing matches, and other attractions at the Ryman in her free time. In 1914, when her employer went out of business, Naff made booking these events her full-time job. She eventually became the Ryman's official manager. Naff's keen business sense allowed her to book stage shows and world-renowned entertainers in the city's largest indoor gathering place, keeping the Ryman in the news. W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope with Doris Day, Harry Houdini, and John Philip Sousa, as well as many others, performed at the venue over the years, earning the Ryman the nickname, "The Carnegie Hall of the South". The Ryman hosted lectures by U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1907 and 1911, respectively. World-famous Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso appeared in concert there in 1919. It also hosted the inaugurations of three governors of the state of Tennessee.

The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in 1969

The Grand Ole Opry began as a radio broadcast in 1925. It had many homes before landing at the Ryman. The Grand Ole Opry was first broadcast from the Ryman on June 5, 1943, and originated there every week for nearly 31 years thereafter. Every show sold out, and hundreds of fans were often turned away. Melding its then-current usage with the building's origins as a house of worship, the Ryman got the nickname "The Mother Church of Country Music", which it still holds to this day.

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The Ryman Auditorium today; photo Wikipedia

After Tom's death in 1904, the building was renamed Ryman Auditorium. If you find yourself in Nashville, do take time to visit the Ryman. They host tours and of course continue to offer concerts from some of the best known music artists.

Your turn! Have you visited the Ryman? Tell me about it!

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of thirty-one years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. It's nice to read the history of a building I've heard of often, being a country music fan. I did not know it originated as a church! Thanks for the post.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Connie! Yes, it surprised me about the church too! =D

  3. I haven't attended an event there, but I've saluted as I drove by LOL. My daughter's a musician living/working in Nashville and part of "the tour" when I first visited included the Ryman among many other music-related landmarks. Thanks for the happy reminder!

  4. You're welcome, Stephanie! I hope all your daughter's musical dreams come true! <3

  5. Was this the old synagogue repurposed? Or was that “next door” as the history books define? The front looks new but the roof line looks like Sherif Israel synagogue??