Tourists who have visited the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville since its massive renovation are no doubt familiar with the eatery that is now a part of the complex, Café Lula. But you might not know much about the namesake.
Historians frequently cite local businessman/riverboat captain Tom Ryman and the minister Samuel Jones for their roles in founding one of the industry’s most prestigious stages, but the story of Falls Branch, TN, native Lula Clay Naff isn’t as well known. As the Ryman Auditorium continues the celebration of its 125 anniversary in 2017, The Ryman’s Lisa Ann Dupont says shining the light on Naff is one of the goals of the celebration.
“Even a lot of locals don’t know about Lula,” she tells Billboard. “As we’ve gone through the 125th, we think it’s a great time to talk about Lula’s story – not only the Tom Ryman story, which is so incredible, and the reason we’re here. But Lula’s story in what she was able to achieve in the half-century that she was here is incredible.”
As the Ryman’s manager from 1920-1955 (although she was booking acts there since 1904), Naff was a pioneer in the Nashville music scene. “To me, she’s the ultimate trailblazer,” Dupont says. “She’s the one who started the trail. She led the way for a lot of Nashville women in the positions that they are in today – on both the artist and the industry side. When you think about the part of time that she ran this building, she didn’t have the right to vote, but she was booking what was easily the cultural epicenter of Nashville. If people wanted entertainment, they wanted to see it here. She was responsible for bringing all that entertainment to town. That’s huge.” (Visitors can learn more about Naff by watching a video that the Ryman has produced offering a bit more history about her. They can also see her recently installed star on the Music City Walk of Fame just down the street from what is known as “The Mother Church of Country Music.”)
As the Ryman – which opened in 1892 – celebrates its birthday this year, Dupont admits it’s quite emotional to see the way that visitors react to the historic venue. And though it’s owned by Gaylord Entertainment, she insists that the parent company isn’t the only group with a stake in the Ryman. “It’s so heartwarming how this building is so beloved by both the city and the state. The Ryman is such an interesting place in that every Nashvillian feels like it’s theirs in a way. It’s a large part of everyone’s story that they can tie back to the Ryman. They may have met their best friend or future partner in the pews, or maybe they came with their band to see a show when they were first starting out, and they thought ‘That’s going to be us someday,’ and a few years later, it is. I love Drew Holcomb’s story where he talked about his first date with his wife was at the Ryman. That is so sweet. Since then, they both have played here.”
She smiles and says that some couples have even included the Ryman in their family story – literally. “We hear a lot of instances about people naming their babies Ryman. That’s the ultimate honor. You will never hear about a baby being named Radio City Music Hall. There’s a distinct difference, and I love the sense of ownership that Nashvillians feel toward this building, and how much they love us. We love them back. We know a lot of our regulars. There are people that we see here all the time. We know them by name and we can recognize them. It’s a relationship that you really can’t have anywhere else but this building and this town. We’re extremely lucky.”
Though the show played host to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974 (and still does every winter) and just about every country act you can think of, performers at the hallowed institution have also included W.C. Fields, Louis Armstrong, and Kesha. Plus, the acoustics of the building are legendary. “I think it’s one of the most unique concert experiences that you can have,” she says. “At an arena, you don’t really see the audience. It’s all black because of the lights, and the people are sitting in plastic seats. It’s a very sterile experience, but when you’re here, you can hear everyone in the audience, and you can make eye contact. That can be very unnerving. That’s not what a lot of artists are used to. It’s very real, and very raw – and I think from both sides of the pew – those sitting in them and the artists on the stage both appreciate that. I don’t know if that can be replicated anywhere else.”
In addition to the Opry’s winter run, the Ryman will also be playing host to the annual Tennessee Christmas shows featuring Vince Gill and Amy Grant, as well as the Old Crow Medicine Show on New Year’s Eve.