How Women Shaped The Legacy Of Nashville’s Oldest And Most Celebrated Venue, The Ryman Auditorium

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.”

Certainly, the fiery personality that Naff infused the building with is still alive and well today; she single-handedly turned the building into a point of pride for the city, landing controversial shows that challenged the racism and segregation of the time, and frequently booking black artists that weren’t welcome in other white-run venues. Even audience segregation often fell away at The Ryman during certain events, and Naff earned a reputation as a champion for women and diversity in an era where she was barely seen as an equal to the men she routinely did business with. For much of her career, she went by “L.C. Naff” to avoid the overt sexism a woman working in her position often faced.

In 1943, Nashville’s booming country music variety and radio show, The Grand Ole Opry moved into the Ryman as its permanent home for the next three decades. About a decade after that, Naff stepped down from her role as GM of the Ryman in 1955, turning things over to her assistant, Henry Draper. She died five years later, in 1960. This year, the Nashville Business Journal posthumously honored Lula’s legacy with the Lula Naff Ryman Trailblazer award as at their annual Women in Music City event in October.

“The Mother Church Of Country Music”: The Ryman And The Grand Ole Opry (1943-1974)
Though the Opry has since moved into its own enormous complex on the outskirts of town, its presence at the Ryman is an enormous part of the building’s legacy. This partnership was also shepherded by Lula, and according to author Colin Escott in The Grand Ole Opry: The Making Of An American Icon, every Opry show at the Ryman was sold out, and the building’s name was even changed to The Grand Ole Opry House.

“Lula was here for just about fifty years and that woman could sell a ticket,” Dupont said. “She ran this building and never lost money. She made money. Which, I think is the thread that sort of goes through with Pam and with Sally, they have booked and continue to book acts here that this town wants to see.”

While the partnership may have been lucrative and successful, the age of the building meant it simply wasn’t suitable for a show full of stars that the Opry regularly boasted. Cramped dressing rooms and lack space meant that performers often waited outside the venue, in the infamous alley, or headed over to local honky-tonks like the now world-famous Tootsie Orchid Lounge to drink and perform before their turn on the Ryman stage.

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This is partially what led to the current popularity of Nashville’s downtown strip of honky-tonk bars, and the practice of live music that runs through those joints. Tootsie’s, of course, was named after one of the two owners, Big Jeff Bess’ wife Hattie Louise, aka “Tootsie.” Before it was called Tootsie’s, the bar was simply called “Mom’s.” When the couple split, Tootsie kept running the bar on her own, another woman creating community in a then threadbare Nashville economy of songwriters.

Still, as the Opry itself gained a worldwide following, and country music at large began to transcend the bounds of the south, new sounds like bluegrass — which was popularized and considered to be “born” during Earl Scruggs’ 1945 appearance with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys — sprang up on the Ryman stage. The two southern institutions fed into one another, and it was during the Opry’s presence at the Ryman that it earned one of its most tender nicknames: The Mother Church Of Country Music. After the Opry left in 1974, the Ryman entered one of its lower periods, but the name stuck — and it’s hard not to notice the overtly feminine context that came with it.

A Building Becomes A Legend (1993-Present Day)
After the Opry left, the Ryman was dormant for close to two decades. A fierce battle over whether or not it should be demolished and the rather dire need for renovation left the building in a state of disarray. Prior to the Opry’s relocation, activists secured a spot for the Ryman on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning it was no longer actively facing demolition. But new owners and a failing downtown economy meant the once iconic venue became a shell of its former self. Still, it was never closed and remained open for tours, even when entertainment wasn’t actively being booked there.

It wasn’t until 1991, when Emmylou Harris and her band The Nash Ramblers opted to record a series of live shows in the dilapidated building, that community interest in the Ryman was renewed. Her subsequent album At The Ryman and its accompanying documentary prominently featured the building and rekindled interest in its legacy — especially after the record won the 1993 Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group. In 1994, the building re-opened its doors, as both a museum and a venue, complete with modern, major renovations for the first public performance of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Throughout the latter half of the ’90s, the venue slowly began to book shows, but it wasn’t until Pam Matthews took over as general manager in 2000 that the building really began to return to its former glory. She was the first woman to run the Ryman since Lula herself.

“When I moved to Nashville the Ryman was boarded up and had holes in the ceiling,” Matthews explained. “Pigeons lived in the Ryman Auditorium. But it was a beloved, and it really was a heritage brand; everyone had a fond feeling for it. So it was just ripe for re-invention. When I took it over in the fall of 2000 it did about 12 shows that year — and when I left we did 220 events a year. So it’s really only been fifteen years or so since it did anything. It was only even remodeled in 1996, and it took a couple of years to get it going. So it’s only been producing and staging iconic shows again for 17 years.”

Under Matthews tenure, the booking picked up new speed and new areas of interest. Matthews came from a rock background and routinely booked acts that might have surprised conservative audiences used to an emphasis on country and traditional acts. She booked everyone from George Carlin to Margaret Cho, Ashley Simpson, and even Beck. Probably her biggest coup was booking Coldplay as they became one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

“Well, the turning point in putting the Ryman on the national map and making it easier to book acts was when we did Coldplay in 2003,” Matthews remembered. “I booked them in the fall, September or October, and in January they won all those Grammys and suddenly they were the shit — and they were playing a 2300 seat venue in Nashville, Tennessee. People said, how did you do that? And I was like, ‘well we’re just getting started kids.'”

Some of Matthews’ booking choices sparked backlash from the Nashville community, including Carlin’s opening joke about “pussy farts,” Cho discussing fisting onstage at the Mother Church of Country Music, and even a silly perhaps misguided backlash to her booking The New Pornographers.

“I’m like are you kidding me… that’s Neko Case,” she laughed. “I used to keep this little piece of paper in my desk drawer that says ‘Fear no art.’ I am not here to say, the New Pornographers because their name is controversial, shouldn’t play the Ryman Auditorium. I’m not here to say any of that. I’m here to present art. Do with it what you will. If you don’t like it, don’t buy a ticket.”

With that unrelenting attitude, which certainly takes its cue from Lula’s own headstrong insistence on booking with her heart first, Matthews helped get huge stars, like The Boss, as previously mentioned, on the Ryman stage. When she left in 2007, it was to focus on being a wife. But first, she hosted one final blowout at the Ryman — her own wedding. After Matthews left, an interim GM took over for some time, before another woman, Sally Williams took over at the helm in 2008.

“It’s really interesting that The Ryman really has been shaped by women,” Williams said. “So much of the programming philosophy, starting, obviously, with Lula, who is sort of incomparable in terms of being a trailblazer. She was a woman who certainly didn’t have any template to operate from, and who had the courage to, on her own, seek out opportunities for Nashvillians to experience entertainment that they probably wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.”

After serving as the GM for eight years, this year the company behind the Ryman, Opry Entertainment Group, who also own The Grand Ole Opry, decided to do some restructuring, and Williams new role and title is Senior Vice President of Programming and Artist Relations for Opry Entertainment. Though it’s quite a mouthful, in her new position she still oversees booking at the Ryman as well as managing The Opry. And despite her increased role at the much larger and more commercial Opry, its still the Ryman that remains something deeply special to the Nashville community — and the world.

“It’s funny how often I get phone calls from agents saying ‘i’m just trying to book a show in your room, and can’t find any dates,'” Williams said. “We are diverse in what we do. In any given week you’ll see audiences through many generations, many musical interests — and that all dates back to Lula, who was really programming a diverse array of what Nashvillians wanted to see.”

The diverse programming and packed schedule makes the Ryman one of the most coveted venues for artists on tour, but in the end, the building itself, the history, and the personalities who made it what it is today remain the biggest draw for performers, employees and audiences alike.

“I have not been in a venue that looks like it, there are tons of art deco buildings, all those box theaters, but there’s not one as old as this one,” Matthews said. “This was built as a church. And it has the stained glass and it has the pews. And it has its own particular vibe. I mean it’s stately. It’s a big old building. And it’s not pretty. If you’ve been inside it when it’s empty, it’s not necessarily pretty. It’s certainly not flashy. I think its majesty just comes from its history. Look I’ve been standing for 125 years, what you got?”

In a world where old historic venues are crumbling or being shut down, bulldozed, and demolished every day, the monumental force of the Ryman seems to grow in stature with every passing year. Particularly this year, as it hits that 125-year milestone, the hard work of the women who made the building what it originally was, and then labored to restore it and bring it into the twenty-first century is more valuable than ever. But even if you ask them, their answer is the same: It’s the building.

“The building, itself, is really special, it was built to have just really whole and pure acoustics,” Williams said. “When an artist performs at the Ryman, they perform in a way that is very different than how they perform anywhere else. When you’re in that building, everything sounds better, and we still have those original pews, that creates an intimacy in the audience. If you stand on stage at the Ryman Auditorium, you feel like you are close and personal with your audience. Then you heap on top of that the history, 125 years of really important performances, and it all comes together to be really powerful. And it’s felt by the people in the pews, and it’s felt by people on the stage — that’s the Ryman. It’s the magic of the building.”

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