THE RYMAN YEARS
1943 to 1974
In 1943, the Opry's overwhelming popularity necessitated a move to downtown Nashville's largest venue at the time, the Ryman Auditorium. While the music of the Opry grew in popularity, it was also actively evolving. Although the first music heard on the Opry was folk from the southern mountains, cowboy songs and western swing also became part of the Opry's musical fabric. Pee Wee King, Ernest Tubb, and Marty Robbins helped forge a western tradition at the Opry which performers like Riders in the Sky continue to mine today.
Another evolution in the music was spearheaded by Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass. By fusing the dynamism found in old-time to the rhythms of blues and swing music, Monroe created a complex new sound that not only challenged the musician but the listener as well. His influence on country music has been all-pervasive and runs the gamut from the Stanley Brothers to Elvis Presley, who performed a rockabilly version of Monroe's signature song "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the Opry stage in 1954.
Adding to this overall musical evolution was the appearance of non-traditional instruments on the Opry stage in the early 1940s. In their only Opry appearance, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys introduced amplified fiddles, drums, and other "high-tech" gear to the show. King and Tubb had also begun experimenting with "plug-in" guitars on the show and even trumpets and accordions began to appear on the Opry stage during this period.
The Opry was changing in other ways, as well. Under the leadership of Jack Stapp and Jim Denny, Judge Hay's presence became more and more symbolic and he finally left the Opry in 1956. Meanwhile, the Opry cast kept growing, expanding to 120 musicians and comedians by the early 1950s.
By then, the Opry was the flagship radio show for country music and the ultimate goal of every country performer. One of those looking for a slot was Hank Williams. His success with "Lovesick Blues" in 1949 prompted an invitation to join the Opry cast. The audience liked what they heard and called him back for encore after encore thus beginning a dynamic relationship between the Opry and country music's preeminent singer-songwriter.
It was around this time that network television began to take notice of country music's national appeal. NBC produced an Opry pilot in the spring of 1955 while ABC aired their own Opry series in 1955 and 1956.
With the dawn of the 1960s, the Opry was firmly positioned to enjoy continued success and influence. Up and coming additions to the cast such as Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton represented the new guard while Opry institutions like Grandpa Jones, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Flatt & Scruggs attracted more traditionalist fans. By 1968, current Gaylord CEO E.W. "Bud" Wendell had become the Opry's manager and he started asking some hard questions about downtown Nashville and the fate of the Opry. Encroaching urban decay had made the Lower Broadway area less than hospitable to an audience seeking family entertainment, leading Wendell and National Life to consider a change in venues. The need for a new Opry house was clear-the time had come for the Opry to move on.
Leaving the Ryman
It was an evening wrought with much emotion when, on March 15, 1974, the Opry played at the Ryman for the last time. Performers who played during the Opry's years at the Ryman have a treasure trove of memories to share. They recall security chief Mr. Bell, resplendent in the bronze buttons and black fabric of his fireman's uniform, guarding the twisting stone steps leading up to the inner sanctum of the backstage area. They remember congregating in those same cramped, backstage corridors to swap road stories about near-accidents in the small morning hours, driving from a high school auditorium engagement to a flat-truck performance twelve counties away. The Ryman was hot in the summer and the cast-iron radiators weren't all that good in the winter but the cavernous old hall had a magic all its own.
Roy Acuff, for one, was philosophical about the move. Acuff was convinced that the soul of the Opry rested in the people and the music-fans would love the show no matter where it took place.