Our first day in Nashville was filled with museums, snow, and amazing food. The first museum/heritage site on our itinerary was the Ryman Auditorium. Technically speaking it is a National Historic Landmark and has been since 2001.
First a little history. Originally the Auditorium was the Union Gospel Tabernacle built in 1892 and funded by Mr Thomas Ryman. In 1906, Ryman died and the Tabernacle was re-named the Ryman Auditorium. It came under the ownership of Lula C. Naff until around the 1950s. From the 1940s until the 1970s it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry radio station. Between the 1970s and 1990s the building was uninhabited and eventually deteriorated. Finally, the building was renovated and restored to what it is today. That is oversimplifying what really is a fascinating history. For the sake of this post, it’s a start to get you interested.
There are two tours you can take of the Auditorium – the self guided and the guided backstage. We opted for the self-guided. Both tours, however, begin with a short film that explains the history of the building. When it’s finished you are free to go forth and explore. It’s clear to see a lot of love and passion has gone in to restoring the Auditorium to its former glory. I loved the little display case explaining the conservation work that went on behind-the-scenes to uncover the original paint colour of the walls.
Right at the back of the first and second levels are display cases containing costumes worn by famous country music stars and some surprising objects. My personal favourite was a yellow and white Suffragette sash. In 1914 over 1 000 women delegates gathered in the Auditorium to further the suffrage cause hence why they have that particular object. Overall, it was great to see how restoration and conservation have worked together to save this piece of history.
Moving on to the second museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This museum is massive. There are two levels that trace the development of country music right from the beginning to now. The first exhibition we visited was on Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley are just two of the big names who were signed to this label. The layout of the exhibition was easy to follow and there were interactive elements. For example, in the middle of the room is a sound booth where you can listen to famous songs released by Sun Records.
I really enjoyed the permanent exhibition. The museum has a very impressive collection including 98% of all commercially released sound recordings prior to World War II and thousands of costumes. The museum’s archives are kept behind a glass wall and are in full view when you’re on the second level.
Moving on to what exactly is on display. Basically the display cases trace the history of country music and the musicians who made this genre famous. There are some pretty spectacular costumes on display and too many guitars to count. The highlight object for me was on the first floor – Elvis’ gold-diamond-fishscale coated car. It’s a very nice car but something tells me it would not be roadworthy today.
What’s great about this museum is the amount of multimedia you have access to. Around every corner is a sound recording or movie. Considering it is a museum dedicated to country music I was hoping and expecting for this to be the case.
It is a text heavy museum so trying to read everything will leave you quite fatigued. Your ticket is valid all day though so it might be wise to leave after one level for a break and come back to tackle the next. The text is worth reading if you have limited knowledge about country music (that’s me). If you’re not a big museum-text reader, you’ll still have a great time listening to the music and watching some classic vintage footage.
Visit both museums to really get a sense of why Nashville is the Music City!