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How Emmylou Harris helped transform downtown Nashville

Tonight Emmylou Harris will be honored at the Grand Old Opry, on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. She deserves that recognition and Nashville’s gratitude.

Today downtown Nashville is the home of a major arena, symphony hall, thriving restaurants and a restored and vibrant Ryman Auditorium. But that wasn’t the case in the early 1990s.

In a column this week, Peter Cooper of the Tennessean traces Nashville’s resurgence and the rebirth of the Ryman to Emmylou Harris and her decision to record At the Ryman, a live album at this long-neglected historic site.  In Cooper’s words:

“The resulting album, At the Ryman, pointed attention to a building that hadn’t hosted a public performance since 1974, when the Opry left for the modern amenities (Air conditioning! Dressing rooms!) of the Grand Ole Opry House out by Briley Parkway. The album came out in January of 1992, the same month Harris became the 70th official member of the Opry.

“That album was the tipping point for getting the Ryman refurbished and making it a proud venue again,” said Richard Bennett, who co- produced (with Allen Reynolds) At the Ryman. “It brought the name ‘Ryman’ back to the rest of America.”

At the time, much of the rest of America would have been skittish about visiting the Ryman and its Lower Broadway neighbors after dark.

“Lower Broad was Tootsie’s, a few beer joints, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and a lot of adult bookstores,” says Steve Buchanan, Gaylord Entertainment’s Grand Ole Opry Group president.

Back in 1991, Buchanan was in charge of marketing the Opry and the Ryman, and he was instrumental in green-lighting Harris’ and the Ramblers’ performance there. Buchanan’s efforts to market the Ryman were emboldened by Gaylord President and CEO Bud Wendell, who was insistent that the Ryman was an essential and irreplaceable building.

“The album came out in January of 1992, and we announced the renovation of the Ryman in March of 1993,” Buchanan says. “I think Emmylou was instrumental in multiple ways, and that album served to connect the dots and to introduce the Ryman to a whole new generation of fans.”

You’ll find Cooper’s fine column here.