Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium: A Concert Retrospective
(Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Photo: American Songwriter)
Evan Schlansky’s Top Ryman memories
The Ryman Auditorium is one of the most celebrated venues on the planet, with some of the coolest vibes. And while it is known as the Mother Church of country music, everyone from the Wu-Tang Clan to The Wiggles has performed there.
I was fortunate enough to be a music fan living in Nashville in the 2010s. I visited the Ryman often during that time. I even got to walk across the stage.
This was before they put the food court in. They sure sold a lot of popcorn though. And delicious Yazoo beer, the local brew. You could buy a Hatch Print poster of that night’s show right there in the lobby.
I saw Sheryl Crow perform there. I also saw the Black Crowes, The Counting Crows, Old Crow Medicine Show, Andrew Bird, and Toad The Wet Sprocket, as well as several bands not named after animals, such as Robert Plant, Jack White, Dierks Bentley, Ben Folds, The Avett Brothers, Morrisey and Mumford and Sons.
Part of what makes the Ryman so unique is sitting in those wooden pews. You’re very aware that you’re at a show — it’s not very comfortable, but it’s neighborly. You have to squeeze past everyone in your row to get out to go to the bathroom or get a beer, and so you become intimately familiar with each other. You could turn around and say hello to someone you knew a few pews back, or spot the backs of heads of various people you knew in the rows below you.
How you went up and down the ornate spiral staircase was a testament to how many Yazoos you’d had. “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up, you’re going to have to meet them on the way down,” applied here.
You were in the mother church, so you better act neighborly. If you stepped out of line, you would be ushered out by the septuagenarian ushers they employed there, and nobody would want that. You didn’t want to mess with them and they didn’t want to be messed with.
Here are some of my favorite Ryman memories:
Neil Young, June 1, 2010
My first show at the Ryman. Young, a musical institution himself, performed solo acoustic. I’m a fan of his, but not a superfan. I’ll admit that the show got a bit sleepy for me after awhile, hearing all those songs that I wasn’t familiar with. But that’s on me.
Arcade Fire, August 9, 2010
This show was just a rager, a near-religious experience. The stomping feet of devoted followers shook the pews. It felt like the balcony would collapse. They will kill you with volume, so you can be resurrected. . “I guess we’ll just have to adjust” to all this hearing loss, caused by the audience losing their minds trying to sing over the band during “Wake Up.”
Pixies, September 12, 2010
Ear-drum bleeding volumes, tons of hits. Kim Deal beaming ear to ear. They played Doolittle in its entirety. A full album show is always a gamble. Like, here, eat an entire cake. But this time it worked. At one point, they showed a vintage horror video, complete with someone “slicing up eyeballs.” I could have done without that part.
They opened their set with three Doolittle b-sides, performed in the dark. It was a cool trick that allowed the Pixies to be their own opening band. The real opener was an electronic noise band called Fuck Buttons. They were terrible; half the audience left when they started playing. Still, a band called Fuck Buttons made it to the Ryman.
The Americana Music Honors and Awards, 2010 – 2014
An embarrassment of riches in an occasionally endless awards show. Getting to see Emmylou Harris duet with whoever was standing next to her, no big deal, and every legend they trotted out there, and all the Americana hopefuls. Jason Isbell for the win. Punch Brothers punching out The Secret Sisters on stage. Okay I made that up. Elvis Costello is here, probably. I went four years in a row.
Bright Eyes, March 17, 2011
Good music is my religion. Spiritual albums like Cassadaga play well in the Ryman. Songs like “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now” and “Beginner’s Mind” washed over us. A pedal steel was deployed. Conor Oberst put on his “metaphorical cowboy boots” to perform “Four Winds.”
Flaming Lips, May 18, 2011
The Flaming Lips squeezed an arena rock show into a small venue. The light show burned our eyes out. Costumed furries danced and confetti cannons burst. Singer Wayne Coyne’s giant hamster ball rolled into the pews and back to the balcony. Unreal. It was like a 60’s psychedelic rock poster had come to life.
Paul Simon, May 19th, 2011
Finally… Rhymin’ Simon comes back to the Ryman! Hello, intimate performance with his amazing 20-million piece band. They played 27 timeless songs in two hours, including my favorite obscure song of his, “Hearts and Bones.” There was even an appearance from Don Everly.
(Wilco performs at the Ryman. Photo: American Songwriter)
Wilco, October 1, 2011
My favorite band of all time. Their Television-style racket could rattle the walls and pull down the curtains. You’re lucky to see your favorite band in a venue like this. They brought their immersive hanging linen stage set, and performed songs from The Whole Love. Hearts were predictably broken. Ten years later, they would finally “go country.”
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, December 1, 2011
Shows like this are what the Ryman is about. Living history. They had their distinctive, vintage capo stand and mystery box of guitar accouterments with them. They covered “Long Black Veil” and ended their set with Johnny Cash’s “Jackson.” The audience bust a collective nut over David Rawlings’ wandering, pugnacious guitar solos. If there was ever a chance to appreciate a solo at the Ryman, you can bet that people there were gonna go “Woo.”
Greg Allman, January 4, 2012
I had yet to see the Allman Brothers, but here was one of the main ones. Allman had deep ties to Nashville. He was having a cultural renaissance, having just released his solo album Low Country Blues. There was a knife fight before the encore. It was a great show. He was still alive then. The Ryman is an excellent place to drink beer and sing “Sweet Melissa.”
Crosby Stills and Nash, July 27, 2012
To my delight they didn’t suck. Lord knows this band has sucked a lot. They’ve been sucking since the 70’s, but sucked the most during the 90’s and 2000’s. Harmonies are meant to be sung well or not sung at all. On this night, they were able to hit the high notes. By the way, CSN is one of my favorite bands.
Gotye, October 3, 2012
The surprise sleeper of the bunch, this show will always stay with me. I didn’t know the albums or the songs. It didn’t matter. The visuals were excellent. The musicianship was dope. Gotye took a drum solo during the encore to show off. Nirvana was reached, via a midi saxophone.
The Lumineers, October 14, 2013
The Lumineers (or is it just Lumineers?) put on a show loaded with energy and got everyone to sing along to “Ho Hey.” These guys were not from Nashville, but they could easily have been. They were from Brooklyn, the Nashville of the East. They were there campaigning for future Americana Awards.
Beck, July 15, 2014
My last show at the Ryman, and one of my last shows in town; thanks for the memories, Beck. He brought out caution tape and draped the stage and amps with it during a monster encore of “Loser / Where It’s At.” His kids (Cosimo and Tuesday) had been dancing around backstage, and crashed the stage at some point. His son looked just like him. Beck to the future.