By Dave Paulson
Music City's most famous stage - which provided a platform under the feet of the legendary likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Louis Armstrong - held its last performance after 61 years of service.
Ryman Auditorium will replace its current oak stage, in place since 1951, with a new one that will improve its durability and triple its load-bearing capacity, with an aim to ensure the building's future as a concert venue.
The current stage has been in place for about half of the Ryman's life, serving as home to the Grand Ole Opry for more than 20 years as it made its debut on television and helped launch the careers of icons such as Cash. Replacing it is a move that Steve Buchanan, Gaylord Entertainment's senior vice president of media and entertainment, said has been considered since the venue underwent major renovations and reopened in 1994.
"The weak spots, dips and just the wear and tear of the shows that we've done over the last 18 years ultimately made it a necessity," he said. "Being able to (build) a stage that really meets the demands of current production values is really very critical."
The stage, only the second in the National Historic Landmark's history, will be performed on for the last time on Friday, when Keith Urban returns from vocal surgery to play an Opry at the Ryman concert with the Oak Ridge Boys, Charley Pride and others. The next morning, crews will begin working daily to complete the project within two weeks. The new stage will host its first performance - a sold-out concert from country newcomers The Band Perry - on Feb. 20.
The new stage won't be entirely new: Wood from the current stage will be incorporated into an 18-inch-deep strip that will run lengthwise along the edge of the new stage.
After the stage is replaced, "Artists that come and play here can still stand on that stage," said Ryman General Manager Sally Williams. "Or kiss it, as the case may be, because that's not unusual."
Artists and audiences alike have come to consider those oak boards sacred ground. The stage was installed in the middle of the Ryman's famed run as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, and that legacy has been cherished by the stars who have performed on it since, including Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Dolly Parton, B.B. King, Neil Young and Coldplay.
"There may not be any other stages in the world that are as revered as this one, and we acknowledge that," Williams said. "We know how important the heritage of this stage is."
But along with that heritage has come significant strain, through concerts and daily tours, according to Ryman officials. In lieu of a replacement during the '90s renovations, the stage was sanded and refinished, Buchanan said, "but we knew that was the last time that that could happen."
"Probably the greatest wear-and-tear (in the venue) is to that stage, and that's part of the reason why we're using a hard wood, so it'll be more durable and can last a long time," he said. "Getting 61 years of life out of those oak boards, with road cases rolling on and off of them and ultimately thousands of people that have walked those boards, we've felt like we've gotten great life."
The Ryman's new stage will be made of Brazilian teak certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The same wood was used to replace the Grand Ole Opry House stage after sustaining damage in the Nashville flood in 2010. By using it, the new stage will be able to support up to 120,000 pounds: three times its current load-bearing capacity.
"It's one of the hardest woods in the world," said Corey Brinkema, president of Forest Stewardship Council U.S. "And it's my understanding that they're looking for a wood floor that will last for more than a hundred years. It should be a fantastic application of that particular species."
The stage also will feature a slightly darker finish, which Williams said is "going to be really great for TV and film." Much of what supports the stage floor, she added, will be left in place but reinforced.
"We're taking out the stage decking, but we're leaving the hickory support beams, and we're leaving the joists that are underneath the stage. Everything that we're able to keep and improve, we are."
Plans are also being made for the remaining planks of the current stage, and Ryman officials say those plans will be announced at a later date. Twenty-four-hour security will be present as the stage is dismantled and the wood is moved off site.
"I think everybody would like to have a piece of that stage wood," Williams said, "and there's going to be some exciting stuff coming down the pipeline on that."
Dierks Bentley is among those curious to see what happens to that stage wood. The country star booked a Feb. 2 concert at the Ryman before learning it would fall in the stage's final week of operation.
"It makes you want to pull every person at our show onstage, and give them the chance to stand on it," he said.
"It's still the Mother Church of Country Music, and things change, and you've got to do what you got to do. They wouldn't remove the floor unless they totally needed to, and it sounds like they've probably waited longer than they should have, so kudos on that, but it doesn't change the fact that it's still a bummer."
Buchanan said the Ryman's overseers "take very seriously our responsibility to maintain this great, historic theater."
He added, "We've taken great care throughout the building to maintain the wood floors, the pews, the windows, all of those different elements that really ultimately make up the heart and soul of that building."
"There's no evidence that we're just casually taking things out of the building," Williams said. "A good example is the pews that we have, which are original to the building. We don't replace pews. We repair pews. That's the philosophy of the Ryman. We're maintaining history here. We're not removing history."
The Ryman's 120-year history, as Ryman/Grand Ole Opry curator Brenda Colladay pointed out, has been filled with its share of changes, from the 1994 renovations that added dressing rooms, proscenium and central heat and air. When the current stage was installed in 1951, it replaced a 50-year-old stage that had been stood on by Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Enrico Caruso and Harry Houdini.
"Even things like the stained-glass windows that people think are so integral to the building, because it used to be a tabernacle - those were installed in 1966," Colladay said. "It tends to kind of absorb these things and make them part of the story. It's an ongoing story. To me, the Ryman is the heart of Nashville. It looks like Nashville's heart. It's this kind of heart-shaped, red building, and it's a living, changing place."