After seeing the Grand Ole Opry in its modern setting, the natural thing to do the following morning was take a look at its spiritual home, the Ryman Auditorium. Originally constructed as the Union Gospel Tabernacle for the specific purpose of providing a venue for the revivalist preacher Rev. Sam Jones, it feels more like a church than a theatre. It became synonymous with entertainment more than religion though, and with a remarkable cast of performers engaged by the legendary bookings manager Lula Chaff, as well as the early stars of the Opry such as Minnie Pearl and the
bluegrass innovators Lester Flatt and
Earl Scruggs. The Ryman became famous in
its own right.
|Stage set-up for the Nuge at the Ryman - he's a bit patriotic, apparently|
Back in the Sixties the place was bought by National Life Insurance, the owners of WSM Radio, which in turn owned the Opry (it’s a radio show, remember). A few years later they decided to build a modern, new home for the Opry. They continued to own the Ryman though, and classy bunch that they were, after the Opry moved out they seemed prepared to have it demolished. For years it was used only sporadically, until new owners refurbished it and reopened it in the Nineties as a signature performance venue. Nowadays it hosts rock bands as much as country – including, during our stay, none other than the Motor City Madman himself, Ted Nugent!
One of the drivers behind the move of the Opry to a new venue was apparently the grim backstage conditions, with cramped dressing rooms and no air conditioning. Not that this bothered the likes of Kris Kristofferson too much. The story goes that he used to spend his time having a few beers in one of the bars out back of the Ryman on Broadway, before dashing to the stage when he was called.
|Outdoors for once on Broadway|
Broadway is one of those places where there is music on tap from morning till midnight, and beyond, supplied by bands playing covers for tips in a host of bars such as Legends, Tootsie’s and Second Fiddle to name but a few. Sure, it can seem a bit strange ducking out of the bright sunshine to spend the afternoon boozing in the company of, say, Lefty and the Right Hand Band. But if you prefer you can always have a long lunch al fresco in the rooftop restaurant of Rippy’s BBQ &Grill, listening to a few guys with acoustic guitars taking it in turns to ply their trade.
It’s pot luck whether a particular bar has a band that takes your fancy, and enough punters have camped out there to create a decent atmosphere. So you just have to take your chances. But a good outfit, like Lefty and co, will keep you entertained playing all sorts of requests, and for blues or rock’n’roll as well as country. They’ll also engage in dialogue, generally wanting to know “where y’all from”, which then becomes your monicker for the duration – so we were ‘Scotland’.
You might have to be patient though. In the evening we set off looking for a bluegrass session Jill had seen advertised at the tourist office, but couldn’t find the place. This led to a bit of fruitless wandering before we eventually pitched up at Robert’s Western Warehouse shortly before 10pm, just in time for an entertaining three piece with stand up bass to finish their set. Fed up of drifting, we decided to sit it out till the next outfit to start their slot – and half an hour later were treated to the truly brilliant Don Kelley Band.
|The Don Kelley Band get down and dirty at Roberts Western Warehouse|
Okay, so they were another covers band. But boy did they know how to entertain. Cowboy hats, excellent musicianship and a nice line in ironic self-congratulation kept us there until the wee hours. Plus, they featured the jaw-dropping guitar picking of Porter McClister. Honest – check out this rendition of ‘Truck Driving Man’! Bands like this make it well worth checking out Roberts.