Review of American Serenade Cruise: Reformed Riverboat Captain Builds ‘Mother Church of Country Music’

In the late 1800s, riverboat captain Thomas Ryman decided to go downtown and heckle a preacher at a Nashville revival.

Instead, Ryman got converted.

As part of his newfound faith, Ryman vowed to build a beautiful tabernacle for the minister, the Rev. Samuel Jones, that he had set out to torment.

The result is one of Nashville’s most popular landmarks, the old Ryman Auditorium.

A statue of Little Jimmy Dickens (1920-2015) stands outside the Ryman where he first performed in 1948. 

Spending the last two days of my American Serenade cruise in Nashville was a wonderful gift. The ship docked at the end of the city’s popular Broadway Street where I could walk to many of the shore excursions offered by American Cruise Lines.

The cruise line’s hop-on hop-off motorcoaches also were taking passengers on shore excursions but the historic Ryman Auditorium was easily walkable.

Of course, the thing that made the Ryman so legendary was not the religious revivals that rang through the auditorium. It was the country music that drew legions of people when the Ryman served as the longtime home to the Grand Ole Opry.

Walking into the huge Ryman Auditorium never fails to give me chills.

Although its size doesn’t compare to the newer Opry home at Opryland Park, the Ryman is still hallowed ground as “The Mother Church of Country Music.”

A statue on a Ryman bench honors Opry stars Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.

It served as a mecca drawing visitors from around the world and entertainers of all levels – beginners to top-of-the-field performers.

Ryman First Used as Gospel Tabernacle

When it opened in 1892, the Ryman was known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. The facility took seven years to build and cost $100,000. Famous preachers such as Billy Sunday and Norman Vincent Peale delivered sermons from its stage.

In 1904, the name was changed to the Ryman Auditorium in honor of the converted steamboat captain.

The hall soon became known as a first-rate performance venue for such greats as Enrico Caruso, John Philip Sousa, Isadora Duncan, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, Martha Graham, Gene Autry, Will Rogers and Katharine Hepburn.

In 1943, the Grand Ole Opry took up residence in the Ryman and remained there until March 16, 1974.

The Ryman opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle.

During those years, the Ryman was always packed on Saturday nights for such legends as Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff.

Even a young Elvis Presley was thrilled to step on the famed stage on Oct. 2, 1954, to sing his rockabilly style of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” – until he was booed off by the audience and told he should go back to driving a truck.

Embarrassed, Elvis vowed to never return to the Opry stage. Two weeks later, 19-year-old Elvis signed a 52-week contract with the Opry’s rival show the Louisiana Hayride, which assisted with giving him the popularity he needed to become the King of Rock and Roll. A Ryman exhibit notes what the Ryman lost that night.

The original oak pews are still used in the Ryman.

After a massive renovation, the Ryman is now attracting a whole new generation of visitors for special musical events or tours. True to its country roots, the Ryman Auditorium welcomes visitors to take their time, rest in the original 100-year-old oak pews and snap

In fact, you can even step on the old wooden stage and have your photo taken behind the famous Ryman Auditorium microphone.

An exhibit honors Opry performer B.B. King.

Or you can pose in the main lobby with bronze statues of two of the Opry’s most loved performers – Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl. The life-sized figures rest on an original 1892 oak pew from the Ryman.

Tour Highlights

A video does a great job of detailing the history of the Ryman and its importance today. A large display case along the back wall of the auditorium illustrating the history of the former Ryman manager Lula C. Naff and the building’s early Variety Years.

A Ryman staircase frames a painting of the historic building.

Glass cases are filled with memorabilia and photographs of some of the biggest stars from the Opry years, including Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.

Statues of Opry legends Charley Pride (1934-2020) and Loretta Lynn (1932-2022) are outside the Ryman.

In its heyday, the Ryman was not air conditioned. On hot summer nights, especially in the balcony, the temperature often exceeded 100 degrees.

‘The Father of Bluegrass’ Bill Monroe has a statue outside the Ryman.

But those hard wooden seats were still at a premium as something special and they continue to draw music lovers for a memorable experience.

Bottom Line: For American Serenade passengers, the Ryman Auditorium was one of the most popular shore excursions, along with the Grand Ole Opry evening show that we got to attend free of charge on our last night. Tours of the Ryman are well organized and do a great job telling the history of “The Mother Church of Country Music.” I wonder what might have happened if Elvis Presley had gotten a warm reception at his only performance at the Ryman.


Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

7 Night – Music Cities Cruise from Memphis, TN to Nashville, TN

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