We could see the storm clouds brewing overhead as we approached Nashville, but the rain held off just long enough for us to get to our hotel, drop our bags off, and head across the street to the local Waffle House for a bite to eat. And then the skies let loose. The tornado coming in from the west never touched down in Nashville, but the combination of high winds and rain were something else. The rain fell in torrents and the way the wind roared through, the restaurant parking lot looked like a storm at sea.

A total of 39 people died as a result of the tornadoes on March 2, but Nashville was spared. We awoke to clear skies on Saturday and headed into town – we were staying in the very north end of town, so it was off to find a parking spot downtown and then head out on foot. We’d been told to head down to “South Broad,” and so we did. We had no idea that Broadway was pretty much the sum total of downtown Nashville. It runs from the river’s edge, and for about six blocks, it’s chock full of bars, restaurants, boot stores (buy one pair, get two pairs free) and souvenir shops – a total tourist trap. When in Rome …

Bridget picked a corner to busk and I went in search of a coffee shop with Internet. We both got lucky. After a few hours of coffee and violins, we met up for a bite to eat at Big River Grille & Brewing, and then went off to peek our heads into the open doors of South Broad, stopping in at Tootsie’s briefly. But neither Bridget nor I are big into country, so we opted to check out southwest Nashville on Demonbreun, where, Bridget had been told, the music scene wasn’t country. And true, it wasn’t country. It was trendy. Which we also aren’t in to much, so after one drink at the Irish pub, we called it a very early night.

Bridget had a good day busking, so she was looking for more of the same on Sunday. While she was doing that, I headed over to tour the Ryman Auditorium on 5th Avenue, a half block from Broadway.

It was built by Captain Tom Ryman in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle for his new friend, Reverend Sam Jones, a popular preacher at the time who was big on temperance. Ryman, who had not been a teetotaler heretofore, went to see Jones speak under the tent one day and was converted on the spot, so much so that he built the tabernacle so Jones would have a permanent home. When Ryman died in 1904, Jones, in his eulogy, requested the building be renamed the Ryman Auditoriium, and so it was. That same year, a young widow named Lula C. Naff arrived in Nashville and began working for a local company, booking speakers and concerts at the Ryman. Ten years later, that company folded and Mrs. Naff began working for the Ryman in the same capacity. For the next 40 years, she was the face of the Ryman, booking world-class entertainers, politicians and sports events for the Ryman stage. And what a star-studded cast. The upstairs gallery walls are lined with event posters dating from the early 1900s, featuring everyone from Katherine Hepburn and Bob Hope to Sarah Bernhardt and Tallulah Bankhead.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable of Mrs. Naff’s bookings was The Grand Ole Opry in 1943. The Grand Ole Opry was conceived as a radio show in 1925 by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. of Nashville, who figured that giving people what they wanted to hear would be a good vehicle for selling life insurance policies. Their tagline “We Serve Millions” became the call letters of their radio station, WSM, and they built a little studio, capacity 500, to seat the fans who came to listen to the show each week. Soon the show became so popular that the WSM studio no longer could seat the throngs of people who would jam the halls to get a piece of the music. In 1934, the show moved to the Hillsboro Theatre, and two years later, to the Dixie Tabernacle, and in a third move, in 1939 to the War Memorial Auditorium. Finally, in 1943, it moved to its most famous home, the Ryman Auditorium, where it stayed until 1974.

Country music wasn’t born at the Ryman, but it surely came to the attention of many Americans when the Grand Ole Opry show took to the stage every Saturday night. The upstairs balcony walls are bedecked with memorabilia from the days of the Opry at the Ryman – names like Earl Scruggs, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, the Carter family, Roy Acuff – and on and on and on.

On a personal note … it wasn’t until 1969 that I became aware of the Ryman, thanks to the Johnny Cash Show on ABC, which was taped at the Ryman. To me, Johnny Cash wasn’t country – he was something else. I loved his show, which aired from 1969 to 1971. He had great guests, including Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, The Staples Singers, and that list goes on and on too. They’ve got a Johnny Cash and June Carter exhibition upstairs at the Ryman, which includes clips from the show – what a way to go back 40 years, watching Johnny and Bob …

… and Ray

A complete overhaul of the Ryman began in 1993 and was completed the following year. It looks pretty snazzy now and is a choice venue for a number of performing artists – from Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox to Neil Young and Levon Helm. The auditorium’s great acoustics have led it to be called “The Carnegie Hall of the South.” It was a perfect spot for Van to play in 2006 in support of his recent country album, “Pay The Devil.” Undoubtedly the highlight of that evening’s performance was Van’s beautiful cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again.”

Indeed, though, it’s the Grand Ole Opry and its legendary country music stars that graced its stage that define the Ryman. Take a seat in the pews, close your eyes, and you can hear the walls reverberate in The Mother Church of Country Music.

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