THE RYMAN AUDITORIUM—CARNEGIE HALL OF THE SOUTH
Tom Ryman was not a man who bowed to pressure or bent his will to please others. He was born in 1841 in South Nashville and grew up fishing and hunting with his father to keep food on the table for his family. Tom had to drop out of school at a very young age to work and was functionally illiterate his entire life. Luckily, he had a fearless appetite for life and a brilliant natural intelligence. At the age of 19, his father died and Tom became the sole breadwinner for his family and, over time, a successful businessman in Nashville.
From 1860 until 1885, Tom amassed a large fleet of riverboats and a great amount of money. The one burr under his saddle was Reverend Samuel P. Jones. Jones was a fiery tent revival preacher who extolled Nashvillians to stay away from vices, primarily drinking and gambling. Since Tom made a lot of his money from people drinking and gambling on his boats, he didn’t take kindly to the good preacher’s message.
One evening in May of 1885, Tom and a few friends decided to pay Reverend Jones a visit at his tent revival and “raise a ruckus”. But his life took an unexpected turn once he arrived. The message Reverend Jones was preaching seemed to be speaking directly to him about his life and his mistakes. He dedicated his life to God right then and there and promised to build an acoustically sound auditorium to be used by the people of Nashville, of any faith, to hear the message of hope and redemption. Tom hired gifted Victorian architect Hugh C. Thompson to design and build his dream.
The Union Gospel Tabernacle was built in the popular Victorian Gothic Revival style and completed in 1892. Tom considered the building to be his only real achievement in his colorful life. He died in 1904 and the same Reverend Sam Jones, whose message spoke so clearly to Tom 20 years before, officiated his funeral on Christmas Day. He asked the 5,000 plus mourners to rededicate the Union Gospel Tabernacle as the “Ryman Auditorium” to honor the man who had built such a remarkable building for the citizens and Nashville was glad to oblige. The Ryman was re-christened in 1905.
For decades, the Ryman hosted European opera singers, symphonies and ballets, off-Broadway plays, and church services, earning it the nickname “Carnegie Hall of the South”. President Teddy Roosevelt spoke from its stage, which was also graced by WC Fields, Charlie Chaplain, John Phillip Sousa and countless other entertainers and dignitaries. The Ryman holds the reputation for having the some of the finest acoustics of any building in the world. Of course, its modern day legacy began in 1943 when it first hosted the Grand Old Opry. As Marty Stuart put it, “If Country Music had a Vatican, it would be the Ryman!”.