Plenty of venues attempt to make their buildings feel like sanctuaries, but none are so holy as Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. While many start off as churches, and gradually begin the conversion process into a venue somewhere along the way, few of these converts have created and maintained a loyal following of heartfelt disciples on par with the cult of the Ryman. This year, the venue celebrates its 125th anniversary as one of the most widely-respected and well-known performance buildings in America.
Over the course of the century that the building has been in use as a concert hall, it has changed hands and functions a number of times. Yet somehow, its inimitable spirit has remained intact. And unlike many venues from the late 1800s and early 1900s, all throughout its colorful history the Ryman has been supported, and frequently run by women. Here’s a brief look at this building’s incredible legacy as a cultural landmark, its relationship to the music city that grew up around it, and the remarkable characters who built it into the musical stronghold it is today.
The Early Years: Beginnings, And The Legacy Of Lula C. Naff (1892-1955)
The building’s very beginnings are rooted in a sort of kiss-off to non-believers. The space was originally erected by one wealthy riverboat captain, Thomas Ryman, who came to hear the charismatic evangelist Sam Jones preach a sermon at a tent revival circa 1885, and left with the idea of building a tabernacle for the city of Nashville on that exact spot blazing in his heart. Working together, Jones and Ryman accomplished just that, and the Union Gospel Tabernacle was officially completed in 1892. Several years later, when Captain Ryman died, Jones suggested the building be renamed in his honor, and as of 1904, it’s been known as the Ryman Auditorium.
“I think everyone that works here doesn’t take it for granted for a second,” said Lisaann Dupont, the Director of Communications for Opry Entertainment Group. “We’re all, I mean it sounds like a line but it’s not, we’re all incredibly humbled by the building and we know that while we’re here, we’re just stewards of the building. It will outlive us all.”
In her role at the Ryman, a new position that has grown since 2009 correspondingly to the rise of the internet and digital culture, Dupont follows in a long line of women who have helped helm the building since its inception. In fact, the first concert that was ever held at the auditorium, back in 1892, was booked and overseen by a group of women, The Ladies Hermitage Association.
“So the Ryman has had three female GMs, Lula Naff, the first, who has sadly passed away — but we are all firmly Team Lula,” Dupont said. “And then, our two other female GMs were Sally Williams and Pam Matthews. One of our most famous and most talked about underplays is Coldplay — it was Pam Matthews that booked that. And then Sally, she is actually the one that hired me and is also just a really smart woman. To work here you have to be like a crazy, crazy music fan and Sally is like that, her leadership has always been really great. She’s really great at seeing people’s strengths and letting them go with it, which is a lot of what I did with our digital platforms.”
These days, the venue is known as one of the most revered musical spaces, in the country and Americana songwriter world in general, but when it first began to function as more than just a church, it was much more of a cultural hub, and music was just one of the many things it was known for hosting. Before getting to the story of the other two current day GMs, it’s necessary to tell the story of the rather legendary first one: Lula C. Naff (that C becomes important later).
The same year Captain Ryman died, back in 1904, a young widow named Lula moved to Nashville fresh off a stint in business school and with only a couple years experience as a secretary at a talent agency. She began to book “speaking engagements, concerts at other attractions” at the Ryman when the company she worked for relocated to the city. After working several years for the building during her spare time, her old company dissolved and Lula began to work directly with the Ryman; in 1920 the board recognized her tireless efforts to put the venue on the map and hired her to manage the space. It was during her tenure that the venue earned the nickname “the Carnegie Hall of the South.”
“It is very important to know that when Lula C. Naff was running the Ryman Auditorium she did not have the right to freaking vote,” noted one of her successors, Pam Matthews, who became the Ryman GM in 2000. “Credit cards didn’t come out until the ’50s, but she couldn’t have gotten a credit on her own, she couldn’t have owned property, she couldn’t have gotten a loan. None of that was legal. In those days it was not considered elegant for women to be in business. It was low brow, so the high brow women in Nashville considered her be base and tacky. But she did not give a shit. She was not out to make friends. She was out to do a job and she did it. And the business operates differently now. The Ryman has the personality that you infuse it with.”