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Wu-Tang Clan Set To Make History As First Hip-Hop Act To Headline Ryman Auditorium

Jun 8, 2019
Originally published on June 8, 2019 6:03 pm

Since opening its doors in 1892, Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville has hosted a huge array of events, from church revivals to boxing matches. Figures like Johnny Cash, Helen Keller and Harry Houdini have visited the legendary venue for various gatherings and performances. It even housed the Grand Ole Opry in the radio show's early years.

But one kind of show has never topped the bill at the Ryman — hip-hop. That changes on June 9, when the Wu-Tang Clan is set to play a sold-out show at the historic venue. The theater, nicknamed "The Mother Church of Country Music," will be a leg on Wu-Tang's international tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of its breakout album, Enter the Wu-Tang. It's an historic moment, not the least because this will be the first time a hip-hop act has headlined.

"It's just not intuitive to have necessarily a hip-hop show at the Ryman," Eric Holt, a Nashville concert promoter and Belmont University professor, says. "It's going to be interesting. I mean, the energy, I think is going to be different."

The Ryman is a well-loved venue for artists of a few genres today, but it hasn't always been a desirable performance destination. In fact, after the Grand Ole Opry moved out and into a custom-built theater in the 1970s the auditorium fell into disrepair and was close to being torn down.

Then, in 1991, Emmylou Harris recorded a live album there that captured the spirit of the space. At the Ryman won a Grammy and sparked a sort of Ryman revival. The theater was soon renovated and many musicians started to see it as a prestige venue. Rock, soul and R&B acts from India Arie to The Foo Fighters all wanted to play there.

"This isn't your grandparents' Ryman," says Shannon Sanders, a Grammy-winning musician and record producer. In the 1980s, Sanders was a member of one of Nashville's first hip-hop groups, and he says the hip-hop scene here has long lived in the shadow of country: "It's just been hard to be part of the narrative of the city's musical story."

Now, Sanders says, listeners have become more diverse in their tastes, switching seamlessly from country to rock to hip-hop.

Still, hip-hop artists have seemingly hesitated to visit the Ryman based on its size — a 2300-person capacity with screwed-down rows of pews.

The Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville has been open since 1892.
Neil Brake / AFP/Getty Images

Pam Matthews, the venue's previous general manager says that this, and not reluctance on the Ryman's part, accounts for the lack of hip-hop acts at the Ryman so far. "I did make an offer on 50 Cent," Matthews says. "And I also feel it's possible I made an offer on Insane Clown Posse."

Matthews says the hip-hop acts instead tended to go to small nightclubs or big arenas. They also often want spaces where their fans can get up and move. But hip-hop fans are starting to change — particularly the ones who came of age listening to Wu-Tang Clan in the 1990s. They're now older now. They have a little more money and, maybe, a little more interested in sitting.

Regardless of awkward pew placement and past attempts to bring hip-hop to the Ryman, this Wu-Tang show will be a historic moment for the audience, theater and performers alike.

"You know, the Ryman has had to grow up too, and had to grow up into what the city is," Sanders says. "You know, the Wu-Tang is ready for the Ryman, but also the Ryman is ready for the Wu-Tang."

Listen to the full aired story at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, let's go to Nashville, where, in its more than 125 years, Ryman Auditorium has hosted just about every kind of show imaginable - church revivals, boxing matches and, of course, the Grand Ole Opry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's Grand Ole Opry time.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: But there is one kind of performance that's never topped the bill at the Ryman - hip-hop, that is until tomorrow night, when the Wu-Tang Clan will play a sold-out show. Chas Sisk with member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Ask any visitor to the Ryman who they think of when they think of the historic theater, and a certain kind of performer comes to mind.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Definitely Johnny Cash, for starters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")

JOHNNY CASH: I find it very, very easy to be true.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Dolly Parton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOLENE")

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Patty Griffin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVENLY DAY")

PATTY GRIFFIN: (Singing) Oh, heavenly day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Folks like that, yeah.

SISK: But this weekend, it'll be a completely different sound that fans will hear at the mother church of country music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAN IN DA FRONT")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Wu-Tang killer bees, we on a swarm. Wu-Tang killer bees, we on a swarm.

SISK: New York's quintessential rap group is on an international tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their breakout album, "Enter The Wu-Tang." It's an historic moment, not the least because this will be the first time a hip-hop act has headlined the 2,300-seat venue.

ERIC HOLT: It's just not intuitive to have necessarily a hip-hop show at the Ryman.

SISK: Eric Holt is a Nashville concert promoter. He also teaches about the music business at Belmont University.

HOLT: It's going to be interesting. I mean, the energy, I think, is going to be different.

SISK: But before we get to the Wu-Tang, some history of the Ryman. The theater opened in 1892. And in its earliest days, it hosted all kinds of gatherings and performances - reunions of Confederate soldiers, gospel choirs, Harry Houdini and Helen Keller all filled the Ryman's wooden pews.

HOLT: And, you know, literally, it was a church that was not exclusive, actually. So the diversity in the Ryman kind of goes right back.

SISK: In fact, the auditorium didn't specialize in any kind of performance until a half-century after it opened. That's when it began hosting a barn dance-style radio show featuring what was then known as hillbilly music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Oh, I broke my string, boys. I'm going to have to do something here. (Singing) Well, it slipped in the kitchen and it slipped up the...

SISK: The Grand Ole Opry played at the Ryman until the 1970s. Then the radio show moved to a custom-built theater, bigger with padded seats instead of those uncomfortable wooden pews. The Ryman fell into disrepair and was close to being torn down. But then in 1991, Emmylou Harris recorded a live album that captured its spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMMYLOU HARRIS: Is it wonderful to sit out there? I mean, is this a great place to sort of feel the hillbilly dust?

SISK: It won a Grammy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: This is the best. This is the best.

(Singing) The cattle are prowling. The coyotes are...

SISK: That inspired a renovation, and musicians began to see the Ryman as a prestige venue. Rock, soul and R&B acts from India Arie to the Foo Fighters all wanted to play there. A few of those artists even brought along hip-hop performers as opening acts.

SHANNON SANDERS: You know, this isn't your grandparents' Ryman.

SISK: Shannon Sanders is a Grammy-winning musician and record producer. He says listeners have become more diverse in their tastes, switching seamlessly from country to rock to hip-hop.

SANDERS: You know, the Ryman has had to grow up too and had to grow up into what the city is. You know, Wu-Tang is ready for the Ryman, but also, the Ryman is ready for Wu-Tang.

PAM MATTHEWS: I did make an offer on 50 Cent.

SISK: Pam Matthews was the Ryman's general manager in the 2000s.

MATTHEWS: And I also feel it's possible I made an offer on Insane Clown posse.

SISK: Matthews says it just isn't true that the Ryman has been reluctant to book hip-hop acts. The hesitation has come from the performers. Not many hip-hop musicians have been looking for a venue of the Ryman's size. They've instead tended to go to small nightclubs or big arenas. They also often want spaces where people can get up and move, which isn't easy with those pews.

MATTHEWS: The pews are where they are, and they are screwed into that, you know, 120-year-old wood. And they're not coming out.

SISK: But hip-hop fans are starting to change, particularly the ones who came of age listening to the Wu-Tang Clan in the 1990s. They're now older, have a little more money, maybe a little more interested in sitting.

MATTHEWS: And you may actually have 40-year-olds bringing their kid. I'm not sure.

SISK: For its part the Ryman, isn't making a big deal about the show. In a written statement, the auditoriums leaders say they're always aiming to bring in a diverse audience. So while the Wu-Tang Clan is the first hip-hop act to headline at the Ryman, it almost certainly won't be the last. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.