Ryman Auditorium is synonymous with music. It’s a bucket list venue for many performers and music lovers who travel from all over the world to catch a show from the pews. Since it opened its doors in 1892, the Ryman has hosted its fair share of acts from all genres – from opera to illusionist and from country to hip hop. If you think the Ryman is just for country, think again. Here are 11 acts that have graced the Ryman stage that we think deserve a callout:
Singer, rapper, and musician Lizzo took the Ryman stage on Sept. 30, 2019, in what’s been called one of the loudest and liveliest shows in years. The sold-out crowd, which included country stars Trisha Yearwood, Hillary Scott, and Maren Morris, danced for the entire show. Said Lizzo from the stage: “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! Our energy that we share tonight is gonna stick to these walls and live here forever.” And she was probably right. Security even had to stop fans from twerking on the pews. Certainly, that was a Ryman first, too.
On June 9, 2019, the Wu-Tang Clan made history when they became the first hip-hop act to headline Ryman Auditorium. The rap group performed at The Mother Church as a stop on the 25th-anniversary tour of their breakout album, Enter the Wu-Tang. When the show was announced in February, tickets sold out within hours. Onstage, group member RZA said, “A lot of songwriters come from this great city of music. And what makes a songwriter are their lyrics, know what I mean? But we’re all actually really proud to be performing here because we are lyricists.”
On May 12, 2019, former First Lady Michelle Obama appeared at Ryman Auditorium to promote her memoir, Becoming. Nashville Mayor David Briley introduced Obama to the stage and entertainer Stephen Colbert hosted the event in front of a sold-out crowd.
Pop star Harry Styles made his Ryman debut on Sept. 25, 2017. Playing hits from his former band, One Direction, and some surprising covers including “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac and “Girl Crush” by country quartet Little Big Town, Styles dazzled the packed audience. The honor of headlining a show at the Ryman wasn’t lost on Styles. Between songs, he told the sold-out crowd, “When we booked this tour, this was kind of the reason: this room.”
On Mar. 15, 1968, rock group The Byrds, featuring Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, performed on the Opry at the Ryman. The group sang Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere,” then made a last-minute swap to play their own “Hickory Wind” instead of the previously announced cover of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” which got an icy reception from the audience. The long-haired rock ‘n’ rollers had a hard row to hoe at The Mother Church of Country Music, even after they released their one and only country album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but they paved the way for many rock bands in the decades to follow.
Louis Armstrong and His All Stars rocked the tabernacle on Mar. 4, 1957, accompanied by jazz singer Velma Middleton. Armstrong, an American trumpeter and vocalist, with that signature voice, performed to a segregated crowd with an all-white balcony and an all-black orchestra level. The U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the desegregation of schools the same year, but it would be three more years before many Nashville businesses were willing to integrate.
The world-famous magician Harry Houdini appeared at the Ryman on Mar. 11, 1924. He performed his signature milk can trick, escaping from inside a steel drum filled with water and padlocked shut with several locks and chains. But viewers got more than they bargained for when during the show Houdini began lecturing against spiritualists and mediums, including Tennessee’s own legend the Bell Witch, whom he considered ‘charlatans.’ Though Houdini was one of the world’s most popular entertainers, his show at the Ryman didn’t sell as well as expected.
Oct. 2, 1913, saw the Ryman’s first sold-out ticketed event when Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, took the stage. Keller gave a 15-minute speech, then answered audience questions that Macy repeated while Keller touched Macy’s lips to understand the words. Keller’s appearance made headlines the next day after she proclaimed the wonders of Socialism from the Ryman Auditorium stage, which ruffled the feathers of many audience members in attendance.
The Hippodrome Circus appeared at Ryman Auditorium on Apr. 26, 1907. The show was originally meant to take place at Nashville’s Athletic Park at Sulphur Dell – now the site of the Nashville Sounds’ First Horizon Park – but due to bad weather, it had to be moved indoors. One of the largest venues of its day, the Ryman was the perfect place to host the show, which cost $0.50 per adult and $0.25 per child – a steep price at the time.
Booker T. Washington
On May 15, 1902, Booker T. Washington took the stage at Ryman Auditorium. The American educator, author, speaker, and adviser to several presidents gave a lecture to the General Conference of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, gathered at the Ryman. Washington, a formerly enslaved person who gained freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation when he was nine years old, became a powerhouse for civil rights, publicly speaking against segregation, lynching, and voting discrimination.
Susan B. Anthony
On Oct. 24, 1897, women’s rights leader, Susan B. Anthony, took the stage to give a short message during the speech of Rev. Anna Shaw, President of the National Council of Women. The then-78-year-old Anthony read the Declaration of Sentiments, drafted by her contemporaries at the Seneca Falls Convention. At the time of her appearance, the suffrage movement was nearly 50 years old, and Anthony, an early champion, remarked at how much progress had been made in that time. It would be another 23 years until women earned the right to vote.