Travel into the heart of Music City, USA, Nashville, Tennessee, and you can visit the mother church of country music, the Ryman Auditorium.
Music fans all over the world recognize historic Ryman Auditorium as the traditional home of country music's Grand Ole Opry radio show, the musical institution credited with popularizing the country sound nationwide. Even though the show outgrew the auditorium and moved to a larger facility decades ago, the Grand Old Opry still makes an annual pilgrimage back to the Ryman each winter.
Certainly one reason the Opry is so popular is the caliber of performers it has attracted over the years. Whether it was Opry members from the past like Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, or contemporary members like Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, and Alan Jackson, being part of the Opry cast has always been considered the highest honor and a crowning achievement in a country performer's career.
But the charm of the Ryman goes way back to its beginnings and well before the Grand Ole Opry was ever thought of...
It all began just after the Civil War when Nashville began to rapidly grow and prosper in what was known at the time as the New South. Growth in Nashville included banks, insurance firms, schools, and theaters and it soon became a cultural and commercial center of the South and took on the nickname Athens of the South.
Along with this growth came the additions of becoming an important river port and a railroad center and that's where Tom Ryman, a local riverboat magnate came into the picture.
It's said that after listening to noted Southern evangelist Sam Jones, Tom Ryman was converted his religious beliefs and soon gathered up a local group and began work on a church so that he could help others turn away from their wicked ways and save their souls from damnation by giving them a place to worship freely.
Soon the construction of Union Gospel Tabernacle began just north of Broad on what was then known as Summer Street.
The Union Gospel Tabernacle officially opened to the public in 1892 and was located just a short distance from the city's notorious red light district known as the Black Bottoms District. It was a place where people of all faiths could join together in worship and it was also used as a public meeting hall.
One of the most well-known meetings took place there is 1897 when the Confederate veterans hosted a large reunion there that included the addition of what's now known as the Confederate Gallery, and in 1901 a new stage was built for performances of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
The acoustics of the auditorium quickly became legendary and attracted the best musical talent in the world. The Ryman saw early performances by W C Fields, Harpo Marx, Mae West The Ziegfield Follies, Enrico Caruso, John Philip Sousa, Charlie Chaplin and Gene Autry to name a few.
The building's official name, during this time, was the Union Gospel Tabernacle, yet locally, it was more commonly known as "The Auditorium" until 1904 when it was renamed, after Tom Ryman's death, to the Ryman Auditorium.
The words, Union Gospel Tabernacle, are embedded on its exterior and can still be seen on the building to this day, reminding us of its original religious heritage.