Bluegrass Returning To Ryman

This appeared in the Nashville Banner - February 25, 1994

Goodness gracious, Martha White and Gaylord Entertainment are bringing bluegrass music back to the place where it found its voice: Ryman Auditorium. Gaylord Entertainment has announced plans for a 12-show bluegrass series to run Tuesdays from June 14 to August 30.

The century-old Ryman closed its doors last fall to undergo an $8.5 million restoration and will open in June. The Ryman is also known as the "Mother Church of Country Music" as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.

The series will feature bluegrass and country greats Bill Monroe, Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart among others. Stuart, scheduled to headline the June 21 show, says he is glad he is around to see bluegrass and the Ryman together again.

"What the Ryman does to me is it brings country music back into focus," Stuart says. "We almost lost it a time or two. That scared me to death. That place, to me is the cornerstone of country music."

Opry faithful may remember tuning into radio's Martha White hour to hear bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs launch into what would become their trademark song: the Martha White theme.

It was on the Ryman stage with Lester Flatt that a 13-year-old Stuart got his shot at stardom. "The crowd went nuts," Stuart recalls of his first song. Stuart did an encore, which brought praise from Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff and other Opry stars. "Lester Flatt heard all that and figured he better take hold of me," he says.

The lineup is intended to bring together the full range of bluegrass music, from its roots to the young stars evolving the music today. "The lineup is a study in the variety of bluegrass music," says Ryman general manager Steve Buchanan. "You can't do better than Bill Monroe, the man who invented the music. Alison Krauss, one of the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry, is bringing new fans to bluegrass. And stars such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart cut their musical teeth on bluegrass."

The show is the second regular act planned for the new Ryman. Gaylord had earlier announced a show called Always ... Patsy Cline would run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from June through October.

Martha White is the Opry's longest continuous sponsor, dating back to 1948 when owner Cohen T. Williams figured the Ryman's audience of good country folk were exactly the people who would be buying the company's flour and corn meal.

"Returning to the Ryman is a homecoming for Martha White," says Robert V. Dale, president of Martha White Foods. "The very root of Martha White's country music heritage goes back to the Ryman stage. This is something we just had to do. It's a natural. We can't wait to get started."

Stuart says he once told Gaylord President E. W. "Bud" Wendell he would "haul sand or do anything else" to get the Ryman ready for music again. "The history itself makes it special," Stuart says. "You could just pull some magic moments out of that place."

The magic had failed since the Opry moved to Pennington Bend in 1974. The dilapidated Ryman was open only to tourists who would pay to gaze at the red barn WSM backdrop or to stand on the small stage.

Stuart says, even at its worst, the Ryman still had the ability to rekindle his creative batteries. "Sometimes, when I felt uninspired, I'd go buy one of the tourist tickets and just go sit in the place," he says.

By Jim Molpus

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