The Mother Church

A few years back, I went on a road trip to Nashville with a good friend (see “On the Huzzah”) to catch Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins at the Ryman Auditorium. February 2016 marked the 10-year anniversary of Lewis’ debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, which Lewis has described as a “sort of soul record.” 

“You Are What You Love”, one of the album’s songs, is pretty emblematic of the record’s mood and Lewis’ songwriting chops–tightly written, cerebral lyrics with a catchy yet melancholy chorus that reminds us, “You are what you love / And not what loves you back.” 

The Ryman Auditorium, a place that I love, is where Lewis and the Watson Twins’ anniversary concert was held. It is a music venue so beloved by musicians and fans alike that it is consistently billed as one of the best performance halls in the world. Many call it the “Mother Church of Country Music,” but nowadays all genres of music are played in this sacred concert hall. 

When you take your seat in one of the century-old church pews, you begin to see how the Ryman is a place so holy and weirdly American that, of course, its very concept began in 1885 when an evangelist at a tent revival so moved a steamboat captain and Nashville businessman, Thomas G. Ryman, that he then funded and built the Union Gospel Tabernacle, which opened in 1892. A building holy rollers later named after their dearly departed benefactor. 

My paternal grandmother Anna Lee Hammond knew the Ryman Auditorium by another name: The Grand Ole Opry. My grandmother died in 2003, yet when I visited the Ryman 13 years later, I wondered if where I sat was remotely close to where my grandmother may have sat listening to Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, or Hank Williams, tapping her toe to be sure.

There is an air of legacy and reverence in this space–not just for a granddaughter hoping the seat beneath her might reconnect her to lost love, but also for the musicians who perform here, who stand on the stage shared with so many musical legends before them. 

While the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman to the Grand Ole Opry House east of downtown Nashville in 1974, the Opry returns to the Ryman for three months every winter. I think about the Ryman and places like it a lot–how buildings that were once churches now, more often than not, entertain us, elevate us with a different type of worship and how their histories are quite often complicated and hard, even with the warm acoustics. This year alone, Ringo Starr, Herbie Hancock, Lizzo, Sleater-Kinney, and Sylvan Esso, among many others, will take the Ryman stage. 

As singer-songwriter Priscilla Renea told NPR last summer, “I went to the Grand Ole Opry. Backstage, there’s two black people: Chuck Berry and Darius Rucker. I want to be on that wall and I want to have my costumes behind the glass case for, in 50 years, another little black girl goes back there and says, ‘Wow, if she did that, I could do that.’”