Emmylou Harris on tap for Ryman Auditorium's yearlong 125th anniversary festivities
That’s why Ryman officials have tapped Harris to play a key role in a year-long slate of special events marking this year’s 125th anniversary of the building commonly referred to as “The Mother Church of Country Music,” a title closely tied to its status as home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.
“Even before it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry,” Harris said, “it was considered the Carnegie Hall of the South. Teddy Roosevelt spoke there. Anna Pavlova danced there. It has a great place not just in music history but in American history.”
It was at the Ryman, for instance, where Kentucky mandolinist Monroe first brought guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs into his group and crystallized a new strain of country music built on tightly knit vocal harmonies and exceptional instrumental dexterity that soon came to be known as bluegrass music.
Harris has been booked for the Ryman anniversary kickoff show on May 2. “We’re putting together as many living members of the Nash Ramblers as we can,” she said. “Unfortunately we lost [bassist] Roy Huskey Jr. quite a few years ago.” (Huskey died in 1997.)
As for what they’ll play at a show that also comes roughly on the 25th anniversary of the “At the Ryman” album itself, Harris said “I think we would certainly want to revisit that album.”
The Ryman took on the name of one of early Nashville’s key benefactors, shipping magnate Capt. Thomas Green Ryman. At the rough-and-tumble period in the late 1800s, he empathized with the mission of evangelist Samuel Porter Jones, who preached temperance during an era of wild and woolly revelry in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Thomas Ryman converted to Christianity in 1885 while taking in one of Jones’ tent revivals, according to Eiland, and provided the funding to build a permanent tabernacle for Jones’ ongoing proselytizing. It held 4,000 people and cost $100,000 — not including a planned gallery for additional seating capacity that was postponed when funds ran out.
The first services were held in 1890 before construction was complete and the Union Gospel Tabernacle opened officially upon its completion in 1892.
Initially it hosted Jones’ own services and sermons by touring evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody, while non-religious events also dotted the Ryman’s schedule, including a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, theater, dance and musical performances by Tallulah Bankhead, Fanny Brice, Enrico Caruso, John McCormack and Martha Graham.
Shortly after Thomas Ryman died in 1904, Jones suggested renaming the Tabernacle in his honor, hence the Ryman Auditorium was born.
In 1925, the Grand Ole Opry started broadcasts from radio station WSM’s small studio downtown, which could accommodate a relatively small live audience. That audience continued to grow, prompting a series of moves to different facilities until the show landed at the Ryman in the midst of World War II.
Harris credited an associate, Bonnie Garner, for suggesting and then getting permission to use the Ryman, which at that point was booked only sporadically for TV and movie shoots, as well as the occasional music special. “At that point,” Harris recalled, “it had become a place for people to come see where music had been made.”
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