The Ryman Today

May 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Barbara Schultz



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photo of Ryman stage

Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jerry Douglas doing “Wagon Wheel” during Mumford’s recent sold-out, three-night run at the Ryman.

A few months ago, Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium went dark for three weeks while the stage was replaced. The old stage, in place since 1951, was showing wear, and the Ryman staff took advantage of the opportunity to add further structural support to increase the stage’s weight capacity. The new Brazilian teak stage is beautiful and stronger than ever, but now there’s a question on a lot of Nashvillians’ minds: What are they going to do with the old wood?

“I never got so many emails from people,” says the Ryman’s chief engineer, Les Banks. “Everyone requesting pieces of wood, pieces of history.”

For now, the boards walked by legends from Hank to Elvis, from Patsy to Emmylou, are being stored at an undisclosed location. Banks says the wood was removed under strict security, and he speculates that pieces may be sold at some point, “like the seats from Yankee Stadium.” But meanwhile, he says, “I was just told no one’s allowed to remove any wood from the Ryman.”

This sort of thing comes with the territory of working in a place where so much musical history has taken place. Banks has become something of a historian and caretaker, as well as occasional front-of-house mixer, and—for 80 percent of the acts that come in—a technical expert and guide for visiting engineers.

“We’re a museum open to the public,” Banks says of the venue many call the Mother Church of Country Music. “People come by and ask what we do here, and I say, ‘We do rock ’n’ roll, country, weddings and sometimes funerals.’ We’ve had open-casket funerals here for Chet Atkins, Bill Monroe and Eddie Arnold, and we had amazing memorial tributes to Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette.”

Banks, a 30-year concert sound man, has been the Ryman’s full-time audio engineer since he came off the road in 2000, but he can tell tales about the Ryman’s Opry days as though he’d been there. He will talk about how before the proscenium was added in ‘94, the balcony seats and pews ran all the way to the upstage wall, so in the days before the Opry moved to Gaylord Opryland, “You could hand your autograph book down to Hank Williams before he went onstage, and he’d sign it and hand it right back up to you.” Or he’ll tell a joke—doing a pretty good Little Jimmy Dickens impression—that he says is one of the same jokes the 91-year-old Opry veteran has been telling for decades.

“I absolutely love this place, and I’m proud of it,” Banks says. “We have respect for history; we are history.”

One of the most gratifying aspects of Banks’ job is to help touring engineers manage the challenging acoustics of the 2,362-seat auditorium. “The seating is all original hardwood pews [dating back to the 1890s],” he points out. “There are so many reflective surfaces, and the biggest challenge is the absolutely phenomenal difference between the empty Ryman at soundcheck and a full house that night. It’s night-and-day different; to this day I get freaked out by how loud everything is when it’s empty.”

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