20 of the Most Inspirational Moments to Happen at the Ryman This Decade

By Katie Quine | Photography by Steve Lowry 

As the 2010s draw to a close, we’re thinking back to the on-stage moments that thrilled, delighted, and surprised us these past 10 years.

Aretha Franklin headlines two earth-shattering shows | April 25, 2010 & October 19, 2011

Aretha Franklin’s powerful vocals could fill any room, but they were on another level entirely inside the Ryman’s curved auditorium, which was created to project the booming voices of evangelists. Before her passing in 2018, we were lucky that the “Queen of Soul” held court for two shows this decade. She took us to church with her 2010 medley, which she concluded with a crowd singalong of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” In that room — as with everywhere she went — she commanded it.

Glen Campbell says goodbye at final Nashville show | January 3, 2012

After an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2010, country great Glen Campbell set out on his 151-stop Goodbye Tour. As the disease took hold, touring became more challenging, but Campbell remained resolute. His indomitable spirit and artistry were both on display during his Ryman stop. The teleprompter he used throughout the tour malfunctioned in an early part of the show. Campbell took the technical difficulty in stride, cracking a joke about his own memory loss. While lyrics didn’t come to him as easily as they once did, his guitar skills were still otherworldly.

Mumford & Sons mark residency with memorable start — and finish | March 6-8, 2012

The magnitude of a three-night residency was not lost on the members of Mumford & Sons. Shortly after the group kicked off its first show, front man Marcus Mumford got what we like to call “the Ryman Jitters,” endearingly forgetting the lyrics to “Thistle & Weeds” before running off stage to throw up. After briefly regrouping backstage, the band came back out, easing into the groove with an intimate acoustic version of “Sister.” Mumford & Sons’ stride never wavered the rest of the residency, concluding three back-to-back shows on a high note with a performance of “Wagon Wheel” — without microphones. The group was joined by Old Crow Medicine Show, Jerry Douglas, and Apache Relay at the front of the stage. What was most striking was the audience’s prescience during that song, shushing itself every time one of its own hooted or hollered, knowing it was rare moment in the making, one we’re still talking about seven years later.

Merle Haggard covers Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” | August 25-26, 2014

If you wish to pay homage to the artists who’ve paved the way, there’s no better place to do it than at the Ryman, where decades of musical heritage are visible in the grooves and cracks of the wooden pews. When Merle Haggard performed two shows in 2014 — his last Ryman shows before passing in 2016 — he paid homage to the man who inspired him to become a country artist: Johnny Cash. Singing Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Haggard retold the goosebumps-inducing story that he first shared publicly on The Johnny Cash Show, which was filmed at the Ryman from 1969 to 1971. When Cash played his famous show at San Quentin State Prison, Haggard was an inmate in the audience. Of anyone who could do a justice covering the song, it had to be Haggard. Now with both legends gone, our memories of that performance just mean more.

Dolly Parton returns to the Ryman stage for the first time in over a decade | July 31 – August 1, 2015

“It’s hard being a diamond in a rhinestone world,” says Dolly Parton, a rare gem of the human variety. Rarer still? An intimate Dolly Parton performance in which the legend is backed only by a piano, guitar, and a few supporting singers for most of the show. Lucky fans got to enjoy just that when they packed into the 2,362-seat theater for two nights of stripped-down shows in 2015. It was Parton’s first solo appearance at the Ryman in 12 years. When she performed “Little Sparrow” a cappella, her haunting vocals made a full room sound hollow.

“Rhymin’ Simon” wows the Ryman | May 14-15, 2016

Master lyricist Paul Simon’s talents are best showcased in an acoustic setting. Fans got to enjoy them in their full splendor during his 2016 two-night stand at the Ryman. Performing a wide range of classics and new songs from his own canon, Simon continued his reign as the same consummate performer who got his start as half of Simon & Garfunkel more than a half-century ago.

Garth Brooks performs his first-ever Ryman show | September 8, 2016

Garth Brooks is one of the most successful artists of all time, outselling everyone except The Beatles, so it might come as a surprise that the country giant didn’t play his own Mother Church show until 2016. Why did it take so long? Shockingly, he didn’t feel worthy in contrast to his idols. The show, which marked the launch of his own Sirius XM channel, was a departure from his usual stadium shows but awash with emotion. “I don’t know why I stayed away from here for so long,” Brooks told the crowd. “I didn’t feel like I belonged here. But I tell you what, if you could have ever sent a message to an artist tonight, you sent it. I feel the love in this room!” Even at the conclusion of the radio recording, he continued to take requests from the audience. That’s how it’s done.

Little Big Town at the Mother Church Residency | February 15 – November 27, 2017

As part of the Ryman’s 125th anniversary, Little Big Town held an unprecedented year-long residency at the venue in 2017. The band’s four-part harmonies hark back to the country and gospel tradition so deeply embedded into the building’s hallowed walls. But at the same time, their forward-thinking lyricism demonstrate all the goodness that can come from experimentation. Fans in the audience were treated to a who’s who of surprise guests including Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and more over the course of the residency.

Loretta Lynn celebrates 85th birthday with two sold-out shows | April 14-15, 2017

The decade brought the return of Loretta Lynn to the Ryman after more than five decades since her very first performance here when she made her Grand Ole Opry debut. The set lists from her two-show run in October 2014 were a testament to her hardscrabble success as she performed the likes of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” To think that when she first performed at the Ryman in 1960, she slept in the car in the alleyway behind the Ryman the night before. She’s come a long way. In 2017, Lynn returned for two Ryman shows to celebrate her 85th birthday, performing a new song and Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light” in addition to her beloved classics.

Emmylou Harris celebrates 25th anniversary of At the Ryman | May 2, 2017

We owe a debt of gratitude to Emmylou Harris who drummed up interest to save the Ryman in the early 1990s. When she selected the Mother Church as the spot to record a live album, the building was in bad shape, having not been used since the Grand Ole Opry’s departure in 1974. But Harris reminded everyone of the sanctity of this musical holy ground, one that accepts all comers and lifts up their voices into the ether. In 2017, she reunited with the Nash Ramblers to perform on the very stage she helped save. The setlist mirrored the order of songs featured on her Grammy Award-winning At the Ryman album. The night was a powerful reminder of the vitality of a building that’s been around since 1892.

Harry Styles’ Ryman show marks a new artistic beginning | September 25, 2017

When Harry Styles set out on his first headlining tour as a solo artist apart from band One Direction, he had one venue in mind: the Ryman. “When we booked this tour, this was kind of the reason, this room,” he told the crowd at his September 25, 2017 show. He came into his own that night, a singular artist whose swagger rivals that of Mick Jagger and a dynamic voice that can comfortably handle a song beyond the confines of pop. His cover of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” was emotive and raw, and it left quite the impression on a town where covers of the hit are common.

Kesha’s first Ryman show as a headliner feels more like a homecoming | September 27, 2017

A Nashville native, Kesha had been coming to shows at the Ryman for as long as she could remember, but in 2017, she was the one who got to take the stage as the headliner. On the second night of her Rainbow tour, Kesha’s Ryman performance was as triumphant as it was colorful, featuring anthems like “Woman” and “Praying.” Following the longstanding Ryman tradition of inviting a special guest onto the stage, Kesha brought out her own mom, Pebe Sebert. Sebert, who is a songwriter herself, has helped her daughter pen multiple tracks and wrote a little ditty you might have heard of: Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.”

Ben Folds takes song requests from crowd via paper airplanes | November 1, 2017

It wasn’t the first time that an artist solicited song requests from the crowd, but never had we seen hundreds of paper airplanes with song titles scrawled on them glide across the auditorium. The stunt was incorporated into every stop on Ben Fold’s Paper Airplanes Tour, but it was a beautiful sight to behold at the Ryman. One request included “The Frown Song,” which left Folds struggling to remember which key the song is in. Folds joked that it was only the second time he was stumped on the tour. Leave it to Music City to request a deep cut.

Jason Isbell and the Ryman go steady with annual residency | 2014 – Present

It’s only been five years since Jason Isbell headlined his first show at the Ryman, but somehow 2014 feels forever ago as the singer-songwriter has since racked up 27 shows at the Ryman. In the past few years, his one-off concerts have transformed into a full-blown annual residency. In 2019, he performed seven shows across nine days. Never the same show twice, Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, have a unique set list for each night. Isbell’s residency is a microcosm for the magic made at the Ryman: a transcendental experience that’s hard to put into words, harder to replicate, and known only to those in the pews and the artist on stage in that singular moment. For all the day that do not end with a Jason Isbell concert at the Ryman, we’re glad for his Live From the Ryman album recorded in 2017.

Kacey Musgraves surprises and delights with four sold-out shows | February 27 – March 2, 2019

Kacey Musgraves’ sublime Golden Hour was made for a venue like the Ryman. Contemplative and smooth, tracks like “Slow Burn” and “Oh, What a World” don’t need a big concert production to shine. Sitting in the pews, you could bask in the depth of every lyric, unencumbered by distractions. Musgraves knew just when to crank up the energy too, surprising the crowd with a special guest each night. When she was one verse into singing Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” the duo appeared behind Musgraves as she gave a teasing look to the crowd that seemed to say See what I did there? We did, and we’re very glad.

Michelle Obama ends book tour in Nashville | May 12, 2019

It’s an honor whenever a former First Lady swings by for a visit, but the occasion is grander still when she selects the Ryman for the final stop of her book tour. In support of her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama sat down with moderator Stephen Colbert to chat candidly about her humble beginnings, the trials and triumphs of motherhood — on Mother’s Day, no less — and the presidential life she never could have predicted for herself. While Obama’s previous book tour stops were arenas, the Ryman was a fitting spot for an intimate conversation.

Wu-Tang Clan becomes first hip-hop act to ever headline the Ryman | June 9, 2019

Five years after the Opry held its final show at the Ryman in 1974, The Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” which is credited with popularizing rap as a musical genre. Forty years after the songs release, Wu-Tang Clan made history as the first rap act to ever headline the Ryman, continuing the venue’s legacy of hosting a wide array of musical genres and speakers. “A lot of songwriters come from this great city of music, and what makes a songwriter are their lyrics,” group member RZA told the crowd. “There’s a lot of great lyricists that have come from here. We are actually really proud to be performing here, because we are lyricists, but you understand.”

Lizzo brings down the house in “rite of passage” show | September 30, 2019

Of all the artists to break out in 2019, no one did so as loudly or proudly as Lizzo. Her earworm anthems advocating for self-love and inclusion have drawn the admiration of fans around the world, and she brought her talents to the Ryman in the middle of her Cuz I Love You Too tour. The energy of the auditorium was at fever pitch from start to finish as the crowd stood on its feet the entire time. “They’ve been telling me that to headline the Ryman is a rite of passage in every artist’s career, and we sold it out, baby!” she exclaimed to the crowd. “There’s an energy here, that is unmistakable, that’s palpable, that’s thick. Our energy that we share tonight’s gonna stick to these walls and live here forever.”

Old Crow Medicine Show caps off a decade of performances with live album | October 4, 2019

Old Crow Medicine Show is no stranger to the Ryman, performing dozens of times on our stage since the band’s humble days busking in the alleyway outside the venue. October 4, 2019 was the culmination of all their years spent playing the Ryman with the release of Live at the Ryman, a concert album featuring tracks that were recorded here between 2013 and 2019. Old Crow’s story is so closely intertwined with the Ryman’s story, which makes ushering in a new decade at their annual Ryman New Year’s Eve show just feel right.

Maggie Rogers has one of two “full-body experiences” ever on stage | October 15-16, 2019

Folk-pop wunderkind Maggie Rogers hasn’t had much time to process the whirlwind her life has become in the past three years. Since being discovered by Pharrell Williams in her 2016 college music production class, Rogers released critically acclaimed album Heard It in a Past Life, which led to a tour that included two sold-out shows at the Ryman in 2019. With her exuberant dancing and earnest vocals, the 25-year-old artist had the second night’s crowd on its feet, rapping its hands against the venue’s wooden pews with every cheer. Midway through her set, Rogers appeared transfixed. She collected herself to say that she’s only had two full-body experiences on stage in which she realized her life’s purpose is to play music. That moment at the Ryman was one of them. She called her band in for a group hug, and time stood still.

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Ryman Auditorium is one of the most active and celebrated venues in modern music. Generations of artists, seekers, creators, rule-breakers, and rebels have made their mark on the Ryman’s famous stage.

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Katie Quine

Katie Quine is a digital marketing coordinator for Opry Entertainment. She believes Dolly Parton is one of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known.