COVID is a crisis. And in a crisis, people need faith. Back in June, Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium began ministering again. To a crowd gathered outside, a Ryman representative said, "Okay folks, if you have tickets for the tour go ahead and put your masks on. Thank you for being here. We are officially open back up after three months – and we are excited about it!"
Morgan Carter drove ten hours from Lawrenceville, Kansas. "This is the mother church," Carter said. "Everybody is welcome here, and it's pretty special to be here."
Step inside the Ryman, and you'll see the stage is comically small. The venue only holds roughly 2,300 people. They sit in pews, which are not comfortable.
And yet … artists like singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow make the pilgrimage.
"I've played on this stage with Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash, and Keith Richards," Crow said. "I believe the wood in this room holds every moment of history it has endured, and when you walk out on this stage, on these old planks that have been tread by so many important people in our history and in our evolution, you feel it."
Crow said she has played here more than a dozen times. "It's like your first date. It's scary!" she laughed. "But then it's like, 'Oh, this is amazing!' Or awful!"
"Depending on the date!" said correspondent Mark Strassmann.
The Ryman's history bears witness.
Last September, Ketch Secor, who fronts the Old Crow Medicine Show, gave Strassmann a world-class Ryman tour. "I've always felt the spiritual nature of this place," Secor said. "This is my most treasured locale to make music."
Because? "It's a resonant chamber."
Secor pulled out his fiddle and began playing to demonstrate the Ryman's acoustics.
"It's like you're inside of a violin here at the Ryman auditorium," Secor said. "Like peering into the f-holes. That's what the Ryman looks like if you could, like, crack the ceiling open and look down."
And look back, more than a century.
The Ryman began as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, built, Secor said, "by divine decree by a steamboat captain who had fallen into sin and licentiousness."
Captain Thomas Ryman found the Lord. He built a tabernacle in 1892 to save souls. It became the Ryman.
Early performers included John Philip Sousa's Peerless Band, Enrico Caruso, and Marian Anderson. Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin all spoke here.
But 1943 was the game-changer. The Grand Ole Opry moved to the Ryman. Every week, country legends performed live on WSM Radio: Minnie Pearl. Bill Monroe. Hank Williams.
Secor said, "In here was the greatest entertainment value. And they bought popcorn for a nickel and they sat here, and they were mesmerized."
Strassmann asked, "The Ryman was transformative for the Grand Ole Opry, and the Grand Ole Opry was transformative for the Ryman?"
"They worked together. A song can work for a singer, but a singer can work for a song."
In 1956, Johhny Cash joined the Opry. He met his wife, June Carter, backstage. Other legends include Patsy Cline, Charley Pride, and Loretta Lynn.
But by 1973, both Nashville and the Ryman were in decline. The Opry moved across the river. On March 15, 1974, the Cashes sang the closer, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
For 20 years, the Ryman sat dark and crumbling. Nashville considered tearing it down.
Country stars Emmy Lou Harris and Marty Stewart led the fight to save it. In 2018 Stewart told Strassmann, "The Ryman was the ultimate place if you had country music in your heart. It was in absolute threat to be torn down at one point, and some of us [went], 'Please, don't do that!'"
In 1994, the renovated Ryman reopened … re-born.
Country music made it famous. But Dylan played here. Springsteen, too. And last year, Wu-Tang Clan became the Ryman's first hip-hop headliner.
Sheryl Crow said, "They sit and they listen. They stand and they stomp their feet. And they feel the physical part of music in this room, the part of music that changes the molecules."
"So, the energy goes both ways?" asked Strassmann.
"The energy definitely goes both ways. I think people who come in this room know that they're gonna be part of something that is bigger than just them."
They come to the Ryman for moments that feel this intimate.
On Friday, the Ryman live-streamed an empty-house concert by For King & Country, a Christian pop duo – part of their "Live at the Ryman" livestream experience.
One day when COVID goes away, the Ryman's live acts will return, and fans will re-experience a connection that's physical, emotional and, yes, spiritual.
Ketch Secoer said, "It's like there's a fifth Beatle. And the fifth Beatle is the fact that everyone is watching us and experiencing us coming together to unshoulder a little bit of a burden and feel a little freer when they walk out of this place. If the future could be that simple for the Ryman Auditorium, then that's the kind of America I want to see."
For more info:
- Ryman Auditorium, Nashville
- Grand Ole Opry
- Sheryl Crow (Official site)
- Old Crow Medicine Show (Official site)
Produced by Chris St. Peter. Editor: Joe Frandino.