Last week, I read in my friend Mary Hance’s “Ms. Cheap” column in The Tennessean that the Ryman Auditorium has updated and improved its building tour and added a café on the Fourth Avenue side called Café Lula. A free tour was offered on Sunday and I decided to take it since I attend Downtown Presbyterian Church, just up the street on Fifth Avenue. After church and a potluck lunch in the fellowship hall, I wandered down the hill to the Ryman that bright, sunny afternoon.
Among the things that impressed me when the Ryman was renovated and reopened in 1994 was that the integrity of the building was carefully preserved. That is still the case. Therefore, Café Lula is not in the Ryman itself but just outside it. Had I not just eaten Presbyterian barbecue and appropriate accessories, I would have stopped in for a bite. The café is
named for Lula Naff, the longtime manager of the Ryman credited for keeping it booked with stars ranging from Roy Rogers to Katherine Hepburn and making it a performance venue whose entertainment lineup rivaled those of Carnegie Hall and other notable theaters.
Those of us who live in Nashville are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend events at the Ryman. Each time I have done so, I have enjoyed seeing the display cases containing memorabilia and posters commemorating the stars who have appeared and presentations that have taken place in that historic building. Now, there is even more to see with larger displays and audio-visual presentations, starting with a ten-minute movie that includes music from Vince Gill, Sheryl Crow, Darius Rucker and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. That is a rousing way to begin a tour.
It is much more comfortable to tour the old building than it was in 1973 when my Pascagoula High School friend Phil Howell and I travelled to Nashville from the Gulf Coast to see the Grand Ole Opry during the last twelve months of its thirty-one year residency at the Ryman. In addition to seeing the Friday and Saturday night Opry shows, we took the tour. The building was not air-conditioned that July, nor had it ever been. But we sweated and marveled at the fact that we were even standing in that hallowed hall. A highlight was when Ramona Jones, wife of long-time Opry member Grandpa Jones, invited everyone to join her on stage to sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” which she played on her autoharp. “Now, you can say you sang on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry,” she told Phil, the other tourists and me.
Always “The Mother Church of Country Music”
I realize that since its inception as Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892, the building has offered concerts and events that reach far beyond the realm of country music. In the last twenty years, I have personally attended shows there by artists as diverse as one that featured John Prine and Leon Redbone, to performances by Randy Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Glen Campbell, Mary Chapin Carpenter and even the B-52s. All great concerts.
But the building’s popular nickname “The Mother Church of Country Music,” sums it up for me.
Some of the shows that reinforce that reputation happen during the summer Bluegrass series. They bring the Ryman back to the roots of the music for which it is best known. I’m so glad this series is still going strong. Del McCoury will be there tonight, July 2, 2015, as part of it. Over the years, I have seen McCoury, John Hartford, Doc Watson and many others in this acoustically superior theater that complements guitars, banjos and fiddles.
This wonderful building is a true Nashville treasure. Whether you come to the Ryman Auditorium to hear a concert (the Grand Ole Opry is still presented there periodically) or to soak in the atmosphere and take the tour, a visit is well worth it. As Grand Ole Opry founder George D. Hay, “the solemn old judge,” used to say at the close of each Opry show, “That’s all for now, friends…the grasshoppers hop, the eavesdroppers drop while, gently, the old cow slips away…So long, for now!”
Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr