Soul of the South: Music City Magic

Nashville is the capital of country music, and for more than 60 years the Ryman Auditorium has been the musical center of Nashville.
Nancy Dorman-Hickson, Ryan Wallace

The Ryman Auditorium crackles with the energy of tales told, songs sung, and souls saved.

Home of WSM's Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974, the former Union Gospel Tabernacle is still considered the Mother Church of Country Music. For much of the year, the tradition continues at Gaylord Entertainment's Grand Ole Opry House east of downtown. Each November through February, however, the world-famous show returns to the Ryman.

Ricky's Ryman Memories
Bluegrass virtuoso Ricky Skaggs relishes his annual pilgrimage to the place where music morphed into magic the first time he played there. "When I was 7, my dad brought me backstage," he recalls. "I was playing the mandolin and my dad was showing me off. All of a sudden, Earl Scruggs walked by." The legendary banjo player zeroed in on the tiny dandy, whose talent was leaving even crusty old pros slack-jawed with amazement. "That your boy?" Scruggs inquired. "Why don't you bring him down to audition or our television show?" The wunderkind landed the TV spot. "It was just that quick," Ricky says with a laugh.

The Ryman's roster of past performers from country, bluegrass, pop, rock, and rockabilly simply stuns. A sampling includes Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Minnie Pearl. Now, as then, the venerable auditorium serves as a unifying force, bringing together all types of performers and audiences. Recently, the Ryman has hosted acts as diverse as Nickel Creek, Bob Dylan, the Indigo Girls, Etta James, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

"I've played Carnegie Hall and other great halls," says Ricky. "But there's no place that makes me feel more at home and brings out the creativity in me like the Ryman. There's not another building like it in the world."

All the City's a Stage
Reverence for the Ryman aside, Ricky acknowledges Nashville's incredible variety of other musical venues. "The new Schermerhorn Symphony Center is unbelievable. To have two great music halls--the Schermerhorn and the Ryman--in a town the size of Nashville is quite a feat. It lets people know that this really is Music City.

That distinctive Nashville sound, born and raised at the Ryman, still echoes in clubs throughout the city. The main artery into downtown, Broadway holds some of the area's most storied clubs such as Tootsies Orchid Lounge and Robert's Western World, both located just across the alley from the Ryman's backstage door.

Tootsies, where Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, and Patsy Cline often bent an elbow at the bar, boasts two stages seven days a week. Some of the best rockabilly bands in the world perform at Robert's, which presents live music all day every day with no cover charge. The group BR5-49 was discovered here and still considers Robert's its home bar.

Just east of downtown, 12 & Porter supports local bands and hosts out-of-towners too. Last year, Neil Young showed up unannounced for a show. Since then, Velvet Revolver and 3 Doors Down have also made surprise visits.

Mentioned in the same breath as the former CBGB in New York City, the storied Exit/In on Elliston Place has hosted artists from Chuck Berry to R.E.M. The Gulch, a Midtown development, houses City Hall, which presents stars such as Beck, who performed for a sold-out crowd last October--and then went next door to Sambuca and played an impromptu set.

 

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"Soul of the South" is from the April 2007 issue of Southern Living.