Eric Church, Amy Grant and...Richard Nixon? Nashville's Famous Venues and First Performers
Nashville didn't become known as "Music City" for no good reason: Apart from its role in the history of country, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll, the city hosts a number of iconic venues for traveling performers and tourists to swing by when in town. Eric Church will christen the newest, Ascend Amphitheater, when he plays a solo set to open the new 6,800-capacity venue in July. That got us thinking: Who were the other performers that played the first gigs at some of Nashville's other historic venues, such as Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry House and The Blue Bird Cafe?
In a city full of music history, no location serves as a better center for the city's music culture than Ryman Auditorium. The building began as a church, but was later converted to a music venue after the death of namesake and local businessman Thomas Ryman. Many may assume that the first performer at Ryman was a country artist—after all, Ryman is most famous for having hosted the Grand Ole Opry radio program for 31 years. The actual performances that first took place at Ryman might shock those who might mistakenly view the city as a capitol for "hick" culture: The former Union Gospel Tabernacle first built a stage to host a number of touring productions from the New York Metropolitan Opera. The Met, then just more than 20 years old, brought performances of Bizet's Carmen, Gounod's Faust and Rossini's The Barber of Seville. It doesn't get much more high-cultured than that.
The Grand Ole Opry House
Many younger listeners might not realize that the "Grand Ole Opry" wasn't originally a venue, but rather a radio program. The broadcast didn't get its own home until it left the Ryman Auditorium for the newly-built Grand Ole Opry House during 1974. If such a venue opened today, you can bet that every major name in country music would be on hand to ring it in. During 1974 however, the Ole Opry played it close to the belt and had most of its long-time members handle entertainment on opening night. That said, there was one big-name star in attendance, although he didn't have much experience in the music industry: President Richard Nixon. He became the first head of state to visit the Opry and even took to the stage to perform a few songs on a stand-up piano, treating the crowd to "God Bless American" and "My Wild Irish Rose," before leading a chorus of "Happy Birthday" for his wife, Pat, who turned 62 that day.
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The Station Inn
The Grand Ole Opry House wasn't the only venue that opened in Nashville during 1974. The bluegrass genre saw a huge rise in popularity after the releases of O Brother Where Art Thou? but Nashville had long established itself as the place to go to see it live (the genre is believed to have begun in the Appalachian region of nearby Kentucky). The venue to attend if you're interested in bluegrass has always been The Station Inn. Although the performance space tends to host relatively obscure artists, it has also welcomed genre icon Ralph Stanley and popular player Gillian Welch over the years. A sextet of relative unknowns—Red Smith, Bird Lee Smith, Jim Bornstein, Bob Fowler, and Charmaine and Marty Lanham—probably didn't realize they were making history while they plucked on that fateful night more than 40 years ago.
The Bluebird Cafe
The Bluebird Café had been of major relevance in the Nashville scene for 30 years before the rest of the country caught on during 2012. That was when it became a major setting for the hit show Nashville, encouraging even more to attempt to grab seats for performances. And we mean "attempt": The venue has less than 100 seats, making attendance difficult. The location has become renowned for hosting scores of Nashville-based songwriters, many of whom have already written hits you know, some of whom are yet to be discovered (Garth Brooks cut his teeth at the Bluebird before breaking it big). The very first performer at Bluebird is lost to history but Kathy Mattea, one of the first to frequent the venue, was the first to score a deal as a result of her performances. Mattea had been playing at the Bluebird for about a year when she was discovered by a rep for Mercury Records. The rest is history.
Even the city's biggest arenas are well-regarded as concert venues. There are two ways that you can look at the question of "who was the first musician to play at Bridgestone Arena?" If you want to know who played first after the venue changed its name to Bridgestone Arena during 2010, the answer would be Eric Clapton, who played there for two nights with a solid opener...Roger Daltrey of The Who. If you want to know who actually played the first concert in the building, which was opened as the Nashville Arena, you'll have to go back to 1996. The first gig was a major Christian music concert, featuring performances from Amy Grant and her husband, Vince Gill, ten-time Grammy winner CeCe Winans, Michael W. Smith and also Gary Chapman.