Ryman photos by Steve Lowry
The CMA Music Festival doesn’t officially start until Wednesday (or Thursday, depending on who’s counting), but make no mistake, the fans are already here in droves.
What’s more, the music biz has already cranked up its own events celebrating the fest. On Monday (6/8), downtown Nashville was alive with both festival goers and industry mavens. Lower Broadway is already blocked off, and fans crowded its sidewalks on Monday afternoon, many bearing shopping bags full of early souvenirs.
Just in time for Nashville’s biggest tourism event, we have a new attraction. The hallowed Ryman Auditorium has retooled itself with a $14 million injection to become a must-visit museum, café and gift shop. The gig celebrating this new tourist mecca took place late Monday afternoon and featured a bevvy of politicos as well as our own fabulons.
Rep. Jim Cooper, Tennessee General Assembly Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, Chip Forrester, Hank Adam Locklin, mayoral candidates Bill Freeman and Jeremy Kane and the Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Butch Spyridon were there. As were celebs such as Ricky Skaggs, T.G. Sheppard & Kelly Lang, Jeannie Seely, John Conlee and Chip Esten.
“It’s an incredible day in the ongoing history of the Ryman Auditorium,” said the venue’s manager Sally Williams.
The new tour through the Ryman begins in a theater off the balcony’s lobby. A wrap-around “Soul of Nashville” experience of video, slides and 3-D images introduces you to the venue’s distinguished history. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Vince Gill, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker sing during it.
Next, the balcony’s hallway/vestibule hosts an exhibit celebrating Nashville Show Prints. As you walk along the back wall of the balcony, Trisha Yearwood narrates a video about Tom Ryman and Sam Jones, who founded the place in 1892. Photos and artifacts are in an adjoining case.
Nicole Kidman narrates the next mini documentary. This one is about Lula C. Naff, who transformed the Union Tabernacle into a premier performing-arts venue in 1906-1955. In the vestibule on the far side of the balcony is a spectacular timeline, loaded with stunning graphics. This section also contains a narrative of the building’s renovation in 1994.
Down a flight of stairs you encounter a “Ryman Recording Studio” booth where you can record yourself and emerge with a Ryman Records CD with a professional-looking label. Too shy to sing? You can have your photo taken at the iconic mic, center stage.
On the back wall of the auditorium, your first stop is a Grand Ole Opry history lesson taught by Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs. The Ryman began hosting the Opry on June 5, 1943. The exhibit cases accompanying the video feature artifacts of Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, Marty Robbins, Kitty Wells, Porter Wagoner, Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and Hank Snow.
“I believe this is the spiritual Ground Zero of Nashville,” said Skaggs at the opening’s press conferenece. “The music I hold nearest and dearest to my heart—bluegrass music—was birthed right here [in 1945].” Skaggs has lost 68 pounds, by the way. Without cutting his hair.
Next comes “Stage to Screen,” a video narrated by Chip Esten that tells the story of how the venue has been used for TV shows and movie locations.
“We call it a ‘location,’ but it’s way more than a location,” said Estin to the press. “It’s almost a character on our show.” The ABC-TV Nashville series, which stars him as “Deacon Claybourne,” goes into its fourth season next fall.
Exhibit artifacts in this section come from Coal Miner’s Daughter, Honkytonk Man, Sweet Dreams and the Johnny Cash TV show, as well as Nashville.
The last mini documentary is hosted by ABC’s Robin Roberts. She tells the tale of how the Ryman has become one of the premier concert venues in America. The neighboring cases house artifacts from Gregg Allman, The Black Crowes, Miranda Lambert, Ryan Adams, Buck Owens, Brad Paisley and more.
As you exit, you pick up your photo, peruse the excellent gift shop (where you can make your own custom t-shirt) and perhaps visit the new Lula Café (named for Lula Naff).
“This building is truly revered,” said Ryman Hospitality CEO Colin Reed. “Its…123-year…history is to be celebrated and shared.”
“This whole project will make sure that people know where they have been,” said Esten.
“This is truly one of the best places for people to hear good music,” said Jubilee Singers director Paul Kwame.
“The Mother Church of Country Music is really the mother of ALL music now,” said Mayor Karl Dean. “The Ryman is a must-see stop on any visit to Nashville.”
Murmuring approval were the Nashville Public Library’s Kent Oliver, Steve Lowry, Steve & Ree Guyer Buchanan, Tim O’Brien, Brenda Colladay and Barry Mazur.
We snacked on items from the Lula Café—deviled eggs, sliders, chicken salad and other tasty bites. See a video of the renovation.
I didn’t eat much, because the unofficial debut CMA fest event was next door, the annual CAA barbecue party. I was amazed at how many ways they served barbecue—in tacos, as dip for crackers, as sandwiches, in waffle cones. The event took place in a street-level party tent, as well as in the company’s penthouse offices at 401 Commerce Street.
This event also featured a mayoral candidate: Megan Barry. Not to mention Rod Essig, John Huie, Fletcher Foster, Dan Hill, Will Witherspoon, Justin Smith, John Briggs, Randi Perkins, Kay West, Ron Cox and Mike Vaden. Like me, Pete Fisher had migrated from the Ryman party next door. Heads up: Jody Williams is greeting us with a fist bump, due to a gardening arm injury.
I enjoyed listening to Erika Wollam-Nichols and Shannon Casey reminiscing about their days as underlings at The Bluebird Café. The former now runs it, and the latter is now a CAA princess. Mike Kraski was squiring his promising new duo UnBrake-able. Similarly, Gillie Crowder brought her management client, pop singer-songwriter Josh O’Keefe.
I also must give a shout-out to attendee Aaron Scherz, because he is breaking out as a songwriter. He co-wrote both “Girl in a Country Song” with Maddie & Tae and the new Reba/Jennifer Nettles duet
Due to the PM thunderstorm, The CMA World GlobaLive! Show was cancelled. So the first of the hundreds of festival concerts became the Darius Rucker & Friends event to benefit St. Jude’s at The Wildhorse Monday night.