By Sheryl Nance-Nash & Paige Cushman
For 130 years, Ryman Auditorium has welcomed artists, rebels, and icons to its stage. So, it’s not surprising that the Ryman’s rock ‘n’ roll history is nearly as legendary as the venue itself. In fact, Ryman Auditorium has been designated as an official Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Landmark by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“This stage holds a special place in my heart as I’m able to perform live with many of the incredible Nashville songwriters in the audience whose work has enriched my life and music,” said Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Bonnie Raitt. “I’m honored to help pay tribute to of one of America’s great rock & roll venues.”
To celebrate, we’ve put together some memorable rock moments and stories that happened behind these stained-glass windows. Which moment is your favorite?
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, on tour for Decca Records, headlined the venue in 1948 and again a year later. The 1948 show was on March 9th and was $1.50 in advance and $1.75 at the door. The Tennessean reviewed the show and said that “she rolled them into the aisle” during her show. Fans also likely remember her antics. For instance, she wanted a local preacher to join her on stage for a song. When he resisted, she threated to start singing “Long Slim Papa” (a controversial song) in order to get him to change his mind.
It’s hard to imagine Elvis Presley bombing, but on October 2, 1954, his Opry debut was rocky. Before going on stage, the 19-year-old reportedly told a bass player that the audience was going to hate him.
Sure enough, the crowd was not impressed as he performed “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Presley always maintained that he was told by Opry Manager Jim Denny something to the effect of, “go back to Memphis and drive a truck,” but others who were there that night, including Denny himself, has said that never happened. Instead, Denny reportedly told a record producer present that “the boy’s good but is just not right for the Opry.” Presley never performed on the Opry stage again but continued to visit backstage.
The Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson, who was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, made her Opry debut on March 26, 1955. Her music walked the line between country and rock ‘n’ roll, and her debut was not without controversy. Opry member Ernest Tubb reportedly had her put on additional clothes and ultimately Jackson felt like her portion of the show was overshadowed.
There was a lot of buzz about the “hippie” rockers The Byrds when they took the stage on March 15, 1968. Some thought they couldn’t play country music. Naysayers didn’t think they could perform at the Opry, since they didn’t make country music. And the night of the show, the band switched one of the songs they had planned to perform, after the original had already been announced. Some Opry members were taken aback. Overall, The Byrd’s Chris Hillman said their reception was “a little colder” than they were used to, “but not icy cold.” Regardless, their appearance was groundbreaking as they were the first rock group to play on the Grand Ole Opry.
September 27 and 28, 1972, would fulfill a lifelong dream of Neil Diamond’s to perform on the Opry. He told The Tennessean, “I have been a fan of country music. The first radio shows I listened to were country music and the Opry. Since I’m not a country music singer, I doubted if I would ever be invited to sing on the show, so I kept hoping I would be able to perform on the Opry stage.”
His nearly two-hour performances both days were crowd pleasers and made Ryman Auditorium history. According to published accounts, Diamond wore a western-influenced all-white suit with red trim on the Ryman stage as he belted out one hit after another, including “Kentucky Woman,” “Song Sung Blue,” and “Sweet Caroline.” During the show Diamond said “I can’t figure out why I never came here sooner. You people treated me like a million dollars.”
You may have heard that rock ‘n’ roll hell-raiser Jerry Lee Lewis said the f-word on the Grand Ole Opry. While that isn’t completely out of character for Lewis, the rumors aren’t true. The legendary pianist took the stage on January 20, 1973, where during his set he said, “Let me tell you something about Jerry Lee Lewis ladies and gentlemen, I am a rock and rollin’, country and western, rhythm and blues signing’ mother.” While he didn’t drop an f-bomb, he did ignore the Opry’s request for him to only perform his country material for their family-friendly audience. Instead, he performed a whopping 40-minute set (most artists did around eight minutes) of both his country and rock ‘n’ roll hits.
We can’t talk about rock ‘n’ roll without mentioning Sheryl Crow. She was the first rock act to play after the 1994 renovation and restoration of the historic building. Her March 13th show was a huge success, and Sheryl continues to help tell the rock ‘n’ roll stories of the Ryman.
The Ryman audience got an early holiday present with Bruce Springsteen’s December 12, 1996 performance. The Boss wowed the crowd with hit after hit. A reviewer for Nashville Scene wrote, “For all his gravity, though, Springsteen appeared unusually buoyant throughout the night. He cackled with maniacal laughter during many of his stories, and the songs that those in attendance likely went home discussing weren’t about politics or immigration….” He also dedicated a song to Emmylou Harris, a Ryman Auditorium legend, who happened to be in the audience.
The legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown, got a standing ovation before he sang a note during his March 16, 1997, sold-out show. The crowd spurred him to throw off his trademark cape more than once, reported The Tennessean at the time.
That wild and crazy rocker known as Alice “shock rock” Cooper shook up the house that is the Ryman on September 30, 2006. The story goes that the pews and stained-glass windows rattled from the raucous performance.
The poet and rock legend Bob Dylan brought his “Never Ending” Tour to the Ryman on September 19 and 20, in 2007. It’s hard to say who heaped the highest praise: the fans, or the media. Her returned to the Ryman with a stop on his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” world tour in 2022.
On July 7, 2012, Ringo Starr celebrated his 73rd birthday at the Ryman. He was the first Beatle to grace the Ryman stage, where Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band filmed the performance Ringo at the Ryman. Ringo returned to the Ryman in 2019 for his band’s 30th anniversary tour.
The Foo Fighters announced a secret pop-up show for Halloween night 2014 – the show old out in under a minute. It was no fright night at the Ryman, it was fun with a capital F. Fans rocked into the wee hours as the band rocked the stage from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m.
Twenty One Pilots rocked the Ryman, October 5, 2015. A review on nocountryfornewnashville.com captured the moment: “Packed to the brim with screaming fans, Ryman Auditorium was in a state as such I’d never seen as they opened with Blurryface opener ‘Heavy Dirty Soul,’ decked in skeleton outfits. It was like the conservative old man that is Ryman Auditorium was replaced with his 16-year-old grandchild, heart pounding from the thrill of sneaking out for the first time. I’ve seen my share of two-piece acts, but none ever filled the room like Twenty One Pilots did, not only in sound but in performance.”
Peter Frampton and the Steve Miller Band united to celebrate the Steve Miller Band’s 50th anniversary of recording and touring with a July 23, 2018, concert at the Ryman during their summer of shows.
REO Speedwagon made their debut at the Ryman on July 29, 2019. Days later, pianist Kevin Cronin wrote about the performance in a blog post: “This venerable venue was previously the home of The Grand Ole Opry, and hallowed ground in the world of Country Music. I never felt sure about putting on a rock show in this room … I had been looking forward to this show for a long time, and never really thought it would happen. It is a bucket list moment, for sure.”
On August 8, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts made their Ryman Auditorium debut. The rock icon performed her biggest hits and covers including “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” and “Bad Reputation.”
Guitarist Sammy Hagar and his band The Circle made their Ryman Auditorium debut on March 8, 2022. It was a star-studded event as Hagar brought the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, singer Gavin DeGraw, and Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn on stage for surprise performances. The group and their guests made rock ‘n’ roll worlds collide with songs from Led Zeppelin, Buddy Holly, Montrose, and, of course, Van Halen.
With 130 years of performances from artists across all genres, the “Mother Church of Country Music” is so much more than that. This is a stage where people come to rock.
See how we’re celebrating the Ryman’s 130th anniversary this year and get tickets to take a tour or see a show at music’s most iconic stage here.