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Rocking the Ryman

Rocking the Ryman

New exhibit explores the links to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

By Cillea Houghton

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At a venue as historic as the Ryman Auditorium, every song begins with a story. And stories that span generations and genres are the centerpiece of a new Rock & Roll Hall of Fame exhibit opening this month at the Ryman.

“The Ryman has never been exclusively country music,” says Joshua Bronnenberg, museum curator and tours manager at the Ryman. “It’s always had a long tradition of carrying a wide variety of artists, whether that be jazz, blues, gospel, rock & roll.”

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And the collective musical roots of country and rock run deep, with both genres having origins in gospel, R&B and roots music, then evolving over decades in distinct directions.

“Country music is one of the pillars of rock & roll,” Greg Harris, president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, says. “At the same time as rock & roll evolves, it’s also impacting country music.”

The collaborative exhibition has been three years in the making. Pete Weien, senior vice president and COO of Opry Entertainment, says that in 2019 a team started cataloging which Rock Hall artists had also performed at the Ryman. It was a surprising number: Out of 351 artists, more than 100 of them have graced the Ryman stage, including Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, James Brown, and Johnny Cash.

The more the team learned, the more they wanted to explore the Ryman’s connection to rock in a deeper way. “It’s been my opinion that for a long time we’ve sold the building short,” Bronnenberg says. “There’s been a lot of artists and a lot of music here that we never really talked about, but rock & roll has always had a place here. We’ve always had people who are now looked upon as being some of the people that laid the foundations for what would become rock & roll here at the Ryman. The idea was, how do we expand that story?”

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All Are Welcome

Since opening its doors in 1892, the Ryman has embraced creativity in myriad forms. 

Long before Johnny Cash broke the Ryman footlights in 1965, legendary magician Harry Houdini was mystifying audiences with illusions in 1924. W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” took the stage with his jazz band in 1923, two decades before Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “Godmother of Rock & Roll,” tore up the room with her electric guitar and gritty vocals in 1948. And they paved the way for artists of all genres to let their unique sounds shine, from Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen to Alice Cooper.

Joan Jett Opening Performance During 2015 Induction Ceremony. Credit: Michael Zorn

It’s more than Nashville’s desirability as a touring destination that draws artists, according to Weien. The spirit of the Ryman draws artists in. You can feel the history whether you’re sitting in the pews or standing on stage. “[Big artists] could play Bridgestone [Arena] or wherever, but they want to say they played the Ryman,” Weien says.”Seeing the stained-glass windows in front of you there and knowing the history of the Ryman and all the famous people that have stood on that stage is very powerful.”

“I think that most artists have a wonderful sense of history because they start off as fans,” Harris adds. “They love music, so they will have a familiarity with the history of the Ryman, and it’s magical for them to step on that stage and connect with that history. 

“It also sounds terrific. The audience is right there. It’s a very intimate place. We need to celebrate these type of places. They remind us of how yesterday and today are connected, and that’s one of the goals of this exhibit is to do the same thing.” To that point, in 2022 the Ryman was named a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Landmark, one of just 12 venues so designated.

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Country music is one of the pillars of rock & roll. At the same time as rock & roll evolves, it’s also impacting country music.

–  Greg Harris
President and CEO
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Examining the artifacts

So what objects did the exhibit curators select to illustrate “rock at the Ryman”?

Highlights include: Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” model Fender Stratocaster guitar, which he played on the Journeyman tour in the 1990s; the outfit worn by late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins to induct Rush into the Rock Hall in 2013; a red latex halter top worn by Joan Jett when the Vans Warped Tour stopped at the Ryman in 2006; and a suede coat Elvis wore onstage at the Ryman in the 1970s. Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Linda Rondstadt and many more are represented as well. 

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Harris says both organizations were intentional about selecting a diverse array of artists. “When you look at the lineup of the bands that have played the Ryman, it reflects that broad landscape and that diversity,” he says. “By highlighting these artists that have played the Ryman, we help underscore that connection between how rock & roll is ever-changing. 

Rocking into the future

The goal of connecting the past and present is reflected in modern artists such as Jason Isbell, who is leaving his mark on the Ryman’s legacy with an annual Ryman residency that is regularly the hottest ticket in town.

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By the end of the year, the Ryman will have hosted 280 shows, the most in a year in the venue’s 130-year history. These include Pat Benatar, who played the Ryman in July and will be inducted into the Rock Hall in November. Also in November, U2 frontman Bono will appear at the Ryman on a book tour, in support of his new memoir, SURRENDER: 40 Songs, One Story. And John Mellencamp enjoyed playing at the venue so much that he requested to do a residency in May 2023, so that’s coming up too. 

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As the Rock Hall and Ryman continue to expand the story of rock and country’s musical communion, they also hope to expand fans’ perception of the power of music and how it shapes our lives. 

“We want them to learn that music is broad and inclusive and it’s ever-changing. We really want them to feel that and know that,” says Harris. 

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“The other piece is, we want them to be reminded of the great moments in their lives. When they see this list of artists, they’re going to remember their favorite songs, their favorite moments in life that some of these artists had a part in. It helps to ground and connect people. That’s the power of music, but really the power of rock & roll. It’s such a broad-based and shared cultural history for all of us, so to connect them to that is just magical.” 

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame exhibit at Ryman Auditorium opens to the public on November 2. The Ryman and the Rock Hall will continue to work together to change out the artifacts annually. 

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