Sally Wiliams, VP and GM of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, on Keeping the Ryman Vibrant
When the Source Awards are handed out Sept. 29 in Nashville, Sally Williams, who is one of this year’s seven honorees, will be recognized for her role with one of the nation’s iconic live venues. A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, she briefly worked at William Morris before finding her niche in venues, including Nashville’s now-defunct Starwood Amphitheater. She also did a brief stint at the Country Music Association during the 2000s, but she has made her largest impact at the Ryman, where she had a hand in a recent expansion of the venerable hall, which added a small theater and a cafe.
What does the Source Award mean to you? I’m incredibly grateful and honored, and I feel fairly unworthy. I have been attending the Source Awards for years, and the women who are honored by Source are such trailblazers, from Peggy [Bradley] and Frances Preston to Donna Hilley and Barbara [Orbison]and Bebe [Evans] and Mary Ann McCready. These are women who did work at a time when there weren’t templates. I just can’t quite wrap my brain around Sally Williams being in a list with them. Being at the Ryman, it’s interesting because this building has been influenced so much by a woman, and that’s Lula C. Naff, the woman who basically managed this building for over 50 years.
The Ryman was already wedged into a fairly small space. How did your organization even have the imagination to think, “We can expand this?” What architects do is absolutely amazing to me. When I came to the Ryman, I started thinking, “How can we improve the experience for guests before they enter the auditorium that Tom Ryman built?” We all know that once you get inside that auditorium, it’s an incomparable experience. But until you get in there, we had some problems. We had outgrown our space, so from time to time you were faced with long lines, and not enough bathrooms, and “How can we improve that?” The only way to go was east, toward Fourth [Avenue], so we got with the architects and talked about what our goals were, and they figured it out.
It’s an older building. What’s the biggest challenge in maintaining it?
It’s almost 125 years old. In addition to that, the pews that we have are pews that were added in the early 1900s, so I’ll tell you that keeping those pews in order is an ongoing process.
You have been in live events your entire career. What is it about this business that’s appealing?
The moment that the artist takes the stage and the audience connects, that’s what makes me want to do it. When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer for Rolling Stone. I always knew that I wanted to work with music. I tried to be a musician, I tried to play the piano, and I tried to play the saxophone, and those were not my callings. Then I tried to be an agent, but for me being an agent was too far from the actual creation of the music. There’s nothing like standing at the back of the balcony at the Ryman Auditorium when the artist comes on and the audience goes crazy, and there’s nothing like knowing that I had something to do with making that connection.
What principles guide the way that you do business?
I try to be a really good listener, I strive to leave wherever I am better than before I got there, and being part of a team is really important to me. Being part of a community is really important to me, and that’s why I love Nashville so much. I feel like this community operates as such, and I think that makes us stronger. And it certainly makes my day-to-day far more impactful.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.