Georgia on my mind in Nashville
Georgia was really on my mind in Nashville, Tenn., when Rachael, my wife, and I had the privilege of traveling once again to the home of country music. And to my dear friends up North and out west who have the idea that we can never leave Georgia, I’ll say: “We made it as far as Nashville.”
But even in Nashville we found a whole lot of Georgia, and that’s why I say, Georgia was on my mind in Nashville.
The big thing is the Ryman Auditorium. And it might be properly named the “Sam Jones Auditorium.” The Ryman Auditorium was born during a tent revival in the 1880s, when the Methodist evangelist, Samuel Porter Jones, was preaching. The Georgia preacher was acclaimed at that time as “the greatest evangelist in the world.”
In 1885, Nashville was the host city to a revival campaign led by Sam Jones. The meetings were held in a tent seating eight thousand people. Jones denounced the liquor traffic with masterpieces in word painting. Overflow crowds attended.
Attending one evening, was Thomas Green Ryman, a riverboat captain and owner of one of the biggest saloons in town as well as several steamships, which navigated the Cumberland River, all of which sold liquor.
Ryman had come with several rowdy companions to poke fun, heckle the preacher and disrupt the meeting.
But, the plan was shattered when Ryman was converted.
He decided immediately to support Jones’ ministry. He conceived the idea of a building to replace the tent, which could be used to accommodate the swelling crowds coming to hear the preacher. It was Ryman’s way to show appreciation.
Ryman led a campaign to raise funds for the building. The task was not too difficult, since the meetings already held by Sam Jones had resulted in over ten thousand converts and new members in churches within one hundred miles of Nashville.
In 1892, the building was completed and named the Union Gospel Tabernacle.
When Tom Ryman died in 1904, Sam Jones conducted a memorial service with an overflow crowd of four thousand. Jones suggested changing the name of the tabernacle to Ryman Auditorium.
Amens were loud and overwhelming in number, and from that day the building bore Ryman’s name. What’s more, it was called for many years the Jones-Ryman Auditorium; it became the city’s center for entertainment and meetings, attracting world-wide fame.
In 1897, the Confederate Veterans Association held its national convention in Nashville, and because of the sentiment connected with Sam Jones’ father and several other members of the family who fought in the CivilWar, the veterans collected funds and erected the Confederate Gallery.
But the most important aspect of the Sam Jones legacy in Nashville was the magnificent development of the Grand Old Opry at the Ryman.
The Grand Ole Opry is the greatest country music show in the world; it is the setting for the only radio program in the world that has never had a summer replacement or missed a performance.
Broadcast every Friday and Saturday night on WSM radio, the Opry has the largest cast and plays to the largest audience of any radio show in the world.
The significant thing about the Ryman, I believe, is the fact that for a period of thirty-one years, it had its greatest influence on American music, and its place in history will always be the show that launched hundreds of careers.
The Opry first started as the WSM Barn Dance in 1925. As larger crowds filled the studio, several moves resulted, and in 1939 the Opry was opened in the War Memorial Auditorium with an admission charge in an effort to keep attendance down; but it didn’t work, as more people came. In 1943, to accommodate the crowds, the Ryman became its new home, a building which could seat three thousand. Most of the seats were filled each Saturday night. With no air conditioning, on a summer night the heat would soar to one hundred degrees.
But the Ryman became the landmark of country music, and in 1971, because of its historical significance, it was listed on the National Register of Historical Places.
As Rachael and I walked through the Ryman on Sunday afternoon, we saw many pictures of famous singers who had performed there.
Then, standing there gazing into the balcony, I could almost hear HankWilliams whining, “I got a feeling called the Blues.”
We walked slowly back to the last pew of the auditorium and took a seat.
I could imagine how it was when the place was packed with people sitting spellbound as they listened to the powerful appeals of the evangelist from Cartersville, admonishing them to “quit your meanness and follow Christ.”
In the 1960s WSM decided to move the Opry to a new home and built a $15 million Grand Ole Opry House adjacent to Opryland USA.
The Opry House is equipped with the largest technical facilities for radio, television and stage production and is the largest radio broadcast studio in the world.
The Ryman has received an $8.5 million refurbishing by its owner, Gaylord Entertainment Company, and now tops the list of tourist attractions in Nashville.
Leaving Nashville, I could not help but think of Sam Jones with deep appreciation.
He left his mark on Nashville without question, but that’s not all; the evangelist also left his mark on Newton County.
His ministry— probably the first and only in American history — inspired one community to change the name of their town.
According to Kenneth Krakow, in his book, Georgia Places and Names, Newborn was originally known as Crossroads or Sandtown,— settled in 1834 by Rufus Broome of North Carolina, who became the postmaster of the first post office in what was then Jasper County
Sam Jones began his early ministry as pastor of the Newborn Methodist Church 1878-79; his dynamic preaching, filled with vivid stories and heart-wrenching emotional appeals, made such an impact, that a spiritual renewal and rebirth was felt in the church and entire community.
As a result, the residents there adopted a new name for their town: Newborn— to honor the religious concept of being “born anew” as preached by Sam Jones. On December 15, 1894, Newborn was incorporated as a town in Newton County.
Around the turn of the last century, a new sanctuary was built. Shortly afterward, Jones was invited to return in 1903 to preach in a series of evangelistic services and to preach the dedicatory sermon for the new building. The meetings were held in the arbor adjacent to the sanctuary. Attendance reached up to 800.
Those of us who love Georgia — and history— must be proud of “a good thing done when its time had come”; and what Sam Jones gave will always be on our minds.