Words by Grace Cope
Photos provided by The Ryman
Nashville has always been a city with a distinct personality. Much of the city’s identity is wrapped up in its history of country music. From its endless options for live music to the many stores on Broadway dedicated to cowboy boots, country makes Nashville stand apart from any other city—but with all of that outward adoration of country music, it could be easy to miss the long history Nashville has with rock-and-roll.
The city’s oldest music venue is the Ryman Auditorium, a building rich with beauty and history. The Ryman, which famously housed the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974, has always been known for its country roots. However, rock music existed at the venue long before many people may realize. This is why Joshua Bronnenberg, Tours Manager and Museum Curator, decided to open an exhibit specifically showcasing rock-and-roll.
“When I first came here, we had roughly three or four exhibits, and they were all Opry,” said Joshua. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the Opry, but it was only part of the story. As the curator, I wanted to expand that. I’m always thinking: how can we tell a bigger story? How can we connect with more people?”
The exhibit, titled Turn It Up! Ryman’s Rock Legacy, showcases artifacts from some of the Ryman’s most famous rock performers––Grace Potter, Drive-by-Truckers, Niel Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more.
“Initially, we started talking about how we need to tell more of the rock-and-roll story,” Joshua explained. “Also because today, a significant percentage of the shows we have are non-country music––rock, blues, jazz, and everything else—so we also wanted to reach out to our locals, so they can see something different from the Ryman.”
The exhibit begins with Elvis Presley’s famous debut on the Opry stage, where he played a rockabilly cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Interestingly the performance was not well-received at the time, despite it being known as a famous debut today. This genesis of rock-and-roll continued, however, and it is all showcased in the exhibit.
For some of the more recent rock-and-roll artists, Joshua described how fun it was to see how different musicians responded to being a part of the exhibit.
“The project was embraced very quickly by artists. Sometimes it’s difficult to get loans, but a lot of the artists, as soon as they heard about this they said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, we’ll help you out,’” said Joshua. “A lot of the Ryman artists are like family. They love the building, they love to be here, and so a lot of them just came in droves to help out.”
The artists are not the only ones who feel inspired by and connected to the Ryman. Locals and tourists who enter the building feel how special and important the auditorium truly is. Joshua described how, for many people, seeing the Ryman is an emotional, bucket-list moment.
“My grandfather is a World War II war vet. I brought him in here before he passed away, and he started reminiscing about how as a boy, his dad had the only radio in their country neighborhood in rural Indiana, and all these neighbors would come over and pile in the living room to listen to the Opry every Saturday night,” Joshua said. “He got really emotional and started crying. Those kinds of moments are special.”
Part of what makes the venue so special is its long-winded history, dating back to when it was built in 1892. Built initially as a tabernacle for religious services and speakers, the building has been through years of history. While it is now a concert venue, the building kept its rows of shiny, wooden pews and its wall of beautiful stained glass windows, creating a truly unique auditorium.
“The building has served as a stage for things beyond just country music. It’s been important for religious events, civil rights movements, the suffrage movement, rock-and-roll, the blues... it’s been a gathering place for people with all kinds of interests,” said Joshua. “That’s what I want to focus on. There’s been a lot more here than just the Opry. So we were excited to have been able to do a whole exhibit on rock-and-roll.”
It’s a rare thing for a venue to triple as a historical landmark, concert venue, and daytime tourist attraction—but for tourists or Nashville locals looking for more rock-and-roll representation in the Music City, look no further than the beautiful, historic Ryman.