Whether it’s the outlaw with the insatiable gift for songwriting Jamey Johnson, or founder and mainstay Bill Anderson, who, by the way, wrote Give It Away with Johnson, everyone who is or dreams to be anybody in country music or music period dreams of playing that stage encircled by the old wooden benches called the Ryman Auditorium. “I honestly don’t care about the money,” Johnson declares, ” I live to play, and I’m not here to take a stab at it, I’m here to DO it!” That enthusiasm flowing just before a recent appearance, has been echoed by artists since 1943, and despite the resort makeover by Gaylord Entertainment in 1993, the roots of the Ryman remain grounded in its foundation of faith and friendship.
Samuel Porter Jones grew up in Cartersville, GA, and despite a heritage that included 7 Methodist ministers, he found the straight and narrow very hard to find, much less to live by on a daily basis. He was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1868, and claimed is bride, Laura, at 21, hoping she could save him from himself. The bottle’s pull became stronger than the law, though, and Jones frittered away fortune and family as he brawled in barrooms. He was eventually turned away even from saloons for not paying tabs and instigating trouble. He caught a glimpse of himself one night in an establishment mirror, and did not like who he saw, a man with swollen eyes and lips, wearing clothes stained with vomit. He remembered a promise to his father that he would meet him in heaven, and cried out to God. He dried out for three days, dressed in a new suit, and returned home a new man to his forgiving Laura. A man with a real story carries real power, and Jones became a man with a mission, launching a tent ministry that would endure for 20 years, reaching millions and saving 500,000. His infectious humor and brutal honesty from the pulpit proved endlessly magnetic. He once told a Toledo, OH congregation, “If the Devil were the Mayor here, he wouldn’t change a thing!”
Sam Jones came to Nashville in May, 1885 to lead a meeting for a crowd of 10,000 faithful. “Captain” Tom Ryman was among them, along with his three children. Ryman had become a giant in the steamboat industry that boomed in the post-Civil War South, and no small measure of his wealth was generated by the gambling and showgirls that had become regulation on those vessels. As it happened, Jones’s focus in the message was mothers, and that was all it took to bring conviction to Ryman, who came forward at the altar call, and pledged to Jones that he would never have to preach from a tent in Nashville. Tom Ryman made the down payment for the Union Gospel Tabernacle then and there, and the remaining funds were raised within three years. The literal “Mother Church” of country music was dedicated in 1891. From his home on Rutledge Hill, Ryman could see his boats along the Cumberland River continue to create fortunes even after he refused the alcohol and girls of the night onboard. The bond of friendship between the two men endured, and when Sam Jones eulogized Tom Ryman in 1904, he proposed that the Union Gospel Tabernacle become the Ryman Auditorium, and the proposal was passed in that moment. In 1943, the Grand Ole Opry moved its radio broadcast to the Ryman, and the music has never stopped
Nashville has become a global hub for music and for faith, hosting dozens of faith based publishing entities for decades. “When I come here, and imagine those heads bowed on these pews,” relates bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, who began playing in the hallowed hall with Bill Monroe, “I can’t imagine Nashville becoming the city that it has without the spiritual revival or preaching of Sam Jones. I think the Ryman is the most important building in Nashville.”
Millions who may never be blessed to touch her well-worn benches still agree.
Author’s personal knowledge of music.